To Retain Female Talent in the U.S. Workplace, Create a Purpose-Driven Organization

How does a corporation attract and retain female talent? A decade of discussing the pay gap and rampant gender bias just isn't working. We need to change the conversation.
12/09/2014 01:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Organizations around the country are hemorrhaging talent because women are leaving the American workforce to start their own businesses. Looking at the statistics, it's easy to understand why.


Here are the hard facts: 21% of C-suite executives are women. This is a drastic improvement since the 1950's, but still not very inspiring. Less inspiring still is the fact that women are currently paid, on average, only three-quarters of what their male colleagues make.

What doesn't add up is that according to the Research from the Russell Sage Foundation, young women today are just as likely to hold bachelor degrees as men, and 50% more likely to hold graduate degrees than men. Also, 40% of women are the breadwinners in their family. While female educational and financial responsibilities quickly increase, moving into executive positions and earning salaries equal to their male contemporaries slowly lags behind.

This is not a new trend. In 2003, The Center for Women's Business Research estimated that, as of 2002, the number of women owned businesses was 6.2 million. These same women-owned businesses employed 9.2 million workers and generated $1.15 trillion in annual revenue. Right now, we have 8.2 million women-owned businesses, and that number is growing 50% faster than new business growth overall. Women now control almost $6 trillion in assets. That's a lot of purchasing and investment power.

As women leave the corporate world to follow their entrepreneurial pursuits, they don't just take their talent with them. They also take their positive impact on organizations as a whole. Catalyst took a good look at Fortune 500 companies with women on their board of directors and found that these companies had a higher return on equity by at least 53%, they were superior in sales by at least 42%, and had a higher ROI, to the tune of 66%. Those are not small numbers.

Research reported by The Guardian shows that the top three career motivators for women are: 1) challenging, passion-driven work 2) making a difference, and 3) recognition. With that in mind, how does a corporation attract and retain female talent? A decade of discussing the pay gap and rampant gender bias just isn't working. We need to change the conversation.

It's time to start conversations about creating purpose driven organizations as a way to retain female talent. Aaron Hurst, author of The Purpose Economy and founder of Imperative, explains that finding purpose at work is to find meaning in what you do by prioritizing relationships, impact and personal growth.

He explains the purpose economy as, "... an economy where value lies in establishing purpose for employees and customers--through serving needs greater than their own, enabling personal growth and building community."

While creating a purpose-driven organization may sound idyllic, it is actually very attainable. But how do you do it?

Hurst invited forty-nine thought leaders and myself to a Purpose at Work Summit to share best practices for creating purpose driven organizations. Here are some of the ideas that came from the group:

  • Create a "purpose review" in addition to a performance review, to help the organization know if the employee still feels purposeful at work.

  • Find ways to increase organizational trust and transparency, where mistakes are applauded and difficult conversations are rewarded.
  • Attract, hire and retain prospective employees and freelancers by emphasizing the importance of their growth, impact and peer relationships.
  • Redefine the organizational chart and office space, so it reflects purpose driven conversations, instead of just departmental conversations.
  • To be sure, this isn't the only solution to a complex situation. The gender pay gaps and glass ceilings that women face in the workplace are serious and will take a broad effort to rectify. Yet it's clear that focusing on gender alone isn't working, and hasn't been working for over a decade.

    Let's start a new conversation about women in the workplace, one focusing on both gender and purpose.