The Drain of Female Talent in Firms


Most firms tell me that they meet many more impressive young women than men when they’re recruiting. So there’s something wrong when this talent chooses not to stay and become partners. And firms are missing out big time!

A major study by Bain & Co may have the answer. They asked more than 1,000 men and women in a mix of U.S. firms two questions:

  • Do you aspire to a senior position?
  • Do you have the confidence you can reach a senior position?”

Women with less than two years work experience had slightly more ambition than their male counterparts. But for women who had more than two years experience, aspiration and confidence plummeted 60% and nearly 50%, respectively. This loss of ambition and confidence was recorded regardless of marriage and motherhood status, and compared with much smaller changes for men, who experienced only a 10% dip in confidence.

When Bain asked more senior associates the same questions, the percentage rose for both genders, but women never regained the level of aspiration that newcomers had. It remained 60% lower than men, whose rates shot up. Most jarringly, the percentage of senior male managers who have confidence that they will reach top jobs is almost twice the percentage of female managers.

Why the dashed expectations? Here’s a clue… the majority of leaders celebrated in a corporate newsletter or an offsite meeting tend to consist of men hailed for pulling all-nighters or for networking their way through the golf course to develop client relationships. As Bain reports: If corporate recognition and rewards focus on those behaviours, women feel less able, let alone motivated to try to make it to the top.

Here’s an example provided by Bain:

One woman recounted an experience at her firm’s recent management retreat: “Watching middle-aged white male after middle-age white male tell their war stories of sacrificing everything to close the sale was demoralizing, I just kept sinking lower in my chair and thinking that I would never be able to make it to the senior ranks if this was what it took.”

This culture is reflected in the answers to a second set of questions posed by Bain:

  • Do you see yourself fitting into the typical stereotypes of success within the firm?
  • Have your supervisors been supportive of your career aspirations?

New workers of both genders had similar responses to the questions. But more experienced workers answered very differently. Women’s confidence that they matched the firm ideal dropped by 15 percentage points; men’s by just 9 points. Women’s sense that their supervisors supported their career goals was 20 points lower; men’s was just 3 points lower.

Some women told Bain that their direct supervisors didn’t know their career aspirations, or what to say or do to support them. Others reported feedback like “you’re not cut out for” top management, or “you don’t really want it.”

What’s not happening are discussions of goals, career strategies, job satisfaction, overall trajectory and—especially—the simple giving of real encouragement, all in a business culture that rarely celebrates women’s role models. While every insecure overachiever (the definition of strivers) needs encouragement, Bain’s research clearly demonstrates that, because of gender differences, men get it more frequently than women. One study by the Centre for Talent Innovation even showed that two-thirds of male managers balk at counselling more-junior women; if the conversations don’t take place, the needed affirmation simply can’t happen.

That’s a huge missed opportunity, because positive affirmation creates huge benefits. Polls show that both men and women want to work for firms that recognize talent in all its varieties. Having engaged employees assures better business outcomes and more loyal clients?

How’s your firm on motivating female talent?


For more insights on this topic see

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