The Talent Drain That Companies Need To Stop

women work and lifeMost corporations know it’s not only politically correct to celebrate race and gender differences, it’s best to show genuine caring for people along with profits. But there’s one form of diversity getting short shrift…the diversity of ambition among talented women who want balance in their work and life lives.

Corporations are certainly not ignoring women. Thousands of leadership training dollars are spent to get more women to the top. If women don’t get enough tips for meteoric advancement from employers, more strategies for breaking the glass ceiling are offered by women’s professional associations of every kind.

But the reality is that relatively few women are specifically aiming for the C-Suite. This is not a truth women reveal in leadership training sessions or in annual review discussions with a boss. Today women feel pressured to do their part for the sisterhood and “lean in”—even if what they really want is to do is lean in-between.

Women still shoulder the lion’s share of two huge caregiving roles—for children and aging parents. Even the most hard-driving women tend to reach a point when 24/7 job responsibilities and long hours away from home are difficult to sustain.

One of my coaching clients, Georgia, is a prime example: early forties, Ivy League B.A. and M.B.A., managing hundreds of people and millions of dollars in a highly compensated senior role at a Fortune 100 company. She’s also the mother of two young children. She’s got all the household helpers to make it possible for her to be at her desk from dawn until dusk and travel the globe. But on a recent trip she thought: “I’m supposed to want this success and keep pushing for more, but I never see my kids and I don’t need this job to prove that I’m successful or ambitious.”

Then we talked about pulling back a bit and not driving so hard while her children are young. But she says there’s no support for “those” women and she fears being judged as a “lightweight.” She admits it’s easier to leave, and she soon will.

I know thousands of Georgias who have one foot on the off ramp or left what they perceived as an inflexible, unrelenting grind long ago. It’s a talent drain corporations need to stop—for the benefit of their own bottom line and to help women with what they need most…a future that is financially secure.

How can you keep Georgia and other smart women on your team so they can balance work and life? Here are eight ways.

Redefine ambition. Ambitious women are not only the ones gunning for the C-Suite. Plenty of smart women want to make a meaningful contribution that fits alongside caregiving roles. The definition of ambition is a strong desire to do or achieve something, not to be CEO. For most women the ability to blend work and life for personal and financial well-being is the highest form of success. Lots of job titles can get them to that nirvana and the only way forward is not up.

Give leadership a wide berth. Corporations also tend to glorify leaders who are heading departments or divisions. The fact is that leaders can be at every level and in every job. Women in heavy caregiving mode may be happy in less demanding, but still important roles. They leave jobs because they feel stretched to the limit with work and family responsibilities, but also largely because they don’t feel appreciated as valuable members of the team.

Revisit your leadership training budget. Are you allocating 100% of your leadership training budget to the maybe 10% of women who are truly engaged in a C-Suite quest? Keep helping those women get to the top but break off some significant dollars to help ambitious women who aren’t worried about big promotions and instead want strategies (at least for now) for continually “growing in place”.

Expand wellness programming to help caregivers blend work and life. Focus on the needs of caregivers who could also be men—especially when it involves ill or aging parents. Develop programs on parenting, eldercare, childcare, time management, etc.—and offer tips to reduce employee stress.

Zero in on financial wellness, too. You probably tell employees all the reasons why they should maximize 401(k) savings. But for women, it’s important to address the high cost of career breaks. They often say they’ll leave for a “couple of years” but stay out an average of 12. The cost is phenomenal: every year out of the workforce they forfeit up to four times their compensation, and you face big costs for onboarding replacements, too.

Find out what kind of flexibility women really want. Employers hear “flexibility” and assume every woman wants a part-time job or 100% work at home. Flexibility means different things to different people. Survey women about what they want, which often isn’t the moon. Many women are fine working in your office full-time but just want to arrive a bit later after getting children off to school or leave at a reasonable hour for a regular family dinner.

Figure out how to institutionalize flexibility as an employee benefit. Think back to when 401(k) plans, for example, had to be adapted for your workforce. It was a big job to establish a plan. But you did it, and you can make flexibility a company-wide benefit with limits, guidelines and equity for all. “How to Be Eligible to Work at Home” could outline how many days are allowed, optimal home office set-ups, meeting logistics, etc.

Get work-life mentors front and center. Women can see senior women who have clawed their way to a high rung on the ladder, but they only know these women worked hard and negotiated well. Even more valuable would be knowing how women at all levels have found ways to blend work and life at different family stages.

When diversity of ambition is recognized, employers visibly embrace all smart and talented contributors—and women who are also caregivers will stay on the path to long-term financial security and personal growth.

Read more: 100 Women CEOs Of Fortune 500 Companies By 2025: How It Can Happen