The Forgotten 50%: Five Tips to Retain Entry-Level Employees

Why entry-level women leave their company and what managers can do about it.

Posted Sep 02, 2018

Geralt/Pixabay
Make a choice, take a chance, or change jobs
Source: Geralt/Pixabay

Let me be clear: we’re talking about the 50% who are women. We know that across industries, entry-level employees are generally split 50-50 between men and women (though in the tech industry there are far fewer women… but that’s a topic for another post) and that women pursue more and higher levels of education

Yet somehow, despite more women seeking higher educational attainment and the workforce starting out in equal numbers, by mid-career there are fewer women in leadership roles than there are men. And in the most senior roles, it diminishes to somewhere between 8-30% women, depending on the industry. This number is even lower for women of color. Check out the “By the Numbers” section of the 2017 Women in the Workplace Report (a McKinsey & Company and Lean In collaboration).

There are many great programs (with mixed results) that have tried to address this leadership gap between men and women – some focus on improving recruitment policies and procedures from the very beginning, others offer leadership training programs targeting mid-career and senior career women. 

One thing that is clear is that while training and coaching are critical components, without the support and influence of those at the highest level of the organization, equipping women with more training in leadership will only get them so far. Training and coaching programs that are specifically supported and sponsored by the organization shows a certain level of commitment that there is interest in supporting those women who participate in the programs. For example, most recent efforts have found that engaging men (i.e., the majority of the most powerful staff at the higher levels in a company) to sponsor and mentor high-potential women is a powerful method for promoting women.

Now, all that said, much less is done to target the larger population of women at entry level – the first 5-10 years with an organization. It is at the entry level of their career that women formulate their identity, how they feel about their company or organization, and how they feel about the support they receive from their supervisors and those all the way up the chain. The company culture may feel supportive to them or may not. 

This is when they form their own perceptions of themselves as potential future leaders. This is the time period when many women ultimately choose to leave the organization, or to otherwise stay with the company but not aspire to leadership roles. 

The problem with this situation is that there is no feedback loop to indicate to the company any problem. 

As these women are often just beginning their developmental journey in how they see themselves in a career and define their roles, they may not ever be that explicit about why they choose to leave or why they are not interested in leadership roles. They might say that they never had any higher aspirations or are not interested in leadership roles. They might be perfectly happy but bored and looking for a new challenge. In fact, most women start out with the same level of ambition as men. What we don’t know is whether a lack of confidence, a fear of failure, a lack of opportunity for growth, a lack of company support, multiple family obligations, all of the above, or other factors are at play in their career decisions as a result of never being given the chance to even try. 

If the company or their supervisor does not catch, recognize, and invest in this largest segment of their female workforce, they are likely to lose some very high potential talent. The onus is really on the organization and immediate supervisors to develop the potential by identifying leadership strengths, offering opportunities, and pushing their female employees to take risks.

What You Can Do As a Manager

  1. Look around and assess. How many men vs. women are in leadership roles around you? Are there great female employees you have that you are overlooking?
  2. Pay attention to your conversations.  What kinds of conversations are you having with your employees? Some research indicates that supervisors spend less time talking about new stretch assignments and career opportunities with their female vs male employees. Here is a good article on how to improve those conversations in the context of performance appraisals
  3. Observe how you manage meetings. Are there women being overlooked, interrupted, or invalidated in meetings when they express their opinions? Do entry level women have the opportunity to speak up and be asked for their input at meetings? Do they sit at the table or on the outskirts?
  4. Advocate. Based on the answers to the above, you may need to adjust your own team management style to advocate for entry-level women and ensure their ideas are acknowledged appropriately. If you are in meetings with higher level supervisors, are you advocating for your entry level women employees at the same rate as for your male employees? If not, take time to consider whether there may be female employees who have high potential that you may be overlooking and advocate for them to others at these meetings. 
  5. Support the perception of leadership as an option. Do you have female employees who do not seem to be interested in leadership opportunities but who are very strong employees? Make sure to give them the same opportunities as you might give those who are more explicit in their leadership goals. Even if they choose to decline, let them be the ones declining. Keep offering opportunities and expressing high confidence in their ability to succeed in those roles. Sometimes it’s just a matter of right timing and right opportunity.