• March 2011

The Future of Women in the Workplace

By Barbara Mitchell
HR Expert and Co-Author
The Essential HR Handbook

According to the US Department of Labor, of the 122 million women 16 years and older in the United States, 72 million, or 59.2 percent, participate in the labor force. That’s a big jump from 1950, when only one in three women held a job.

Experts agree that as more women earn college degrees — including PhDs — more women will be heading off to work. However, those experts also forecast that women will continue to have primary responsibility for home and family matters, thus negatively affecting work attendance.

The drama of the glass ceiling

Perhaps that’s the reason why women have not made steady progress into management positions. Hard as it is to believe, a mere 2.4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, according to a December 2010 survey by Catalyst Inc. Only 13.5 percent of women at Fortune 500 companies are executive officers.

While a recent survey by McKinsey & Company showed that 72 percent of respondents believe that gender diversity and financial success are linked, the above statistics show that not much progress has been made getting women into significant leadership positions.

What are the implications of these facts for human resources professionals?

Obviously we have our work cut out for ourselves to convince our corporate leaders that women can, and should, play a role in leading our organizations. Here’s how:

1. We can help our organizations by ensuring that our recruiting strategies include a focus on bringing talented women into the workplace and by creating learning experiences that build on their particular talents.

2. Mentoring programs can be especially effective for providing a safe environment for women to learn how to navigate the organizational politics.

3. Some experts believe that the solution to getting women into the senior executive ranks is best accomplished by focusing on women in the middle-management ranks now.

4. Providing that group with mentors and with individual development strategies will do more good for the organization in the long run.

5. Because of the many responsibilities most women have at home, HR can help organizations create a family-friendly workplace—not just for women but for all employees. Family pressures can affect an employee’s ability to focus on the job, so anything the company can do to relieve those pressures helps maximize employee performance and retain valued employees.

What can organizations do to ensure the full participation of women in the workplace?

  • Create a flexible work environment when possible. Consider flex-time, telecommuting, and job-sharing or part-time work as options.
  • Provide mentors for high-potential middle-management women.
  • Create a climate that provides support for the development leaders

HR plays a role in each of these strategies and must take a leadership role in moving organizations forward. It’s our job to ensure that women are hired, trained, developed, and promoted into roles where they can make a positive contribution to the company’s success.


About Barbara Mitchell

Mitchell is a human resources and organization-development consultant who is widely known as an expert in the areas of recruitment and retention. She has experience in both for-profit and not-for-profit sectors and has consulted for a variety of organizations around the world. She served in senior human resources leadership positions with Marriott International and several technology firms in the Washington, DC, area before co-founding the Millennium Group International, which she sold in 2008. Barbara is a graduate of North Park University in Chicago, with a degree in history and political science. Contact Barbara by email.

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