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April 19 | Cipriani Wall Street | New York City

How Do You Hold On to Mid-Career Women?

February 25, 2014 5:14 pm

Case Studies From EY, AT&T, Kellogg, Time Warner, Eli Lilly and Monsanto

By Barbara Frankel

How Do You Hold On to Mid-Career Women?The Challenge: Several companies recently told us of increasing difficulty retaining high-potential women in their 30s and 40s despite having flexible workplaces. This is creating an increasing gender gap in the talent pipeline to senior management.

The Case Studies: We interviewed five very different companies that have found ways of retaining and engaging women leaders—EY, AT&T, Kellogg, Time Warner, Eli Lilly and Company and Monsanto, Nos. 4, 13, 32, 33, 35 and 42, respectively, on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity.

Here are their solutions.

Case Study No. 1: EY

Interview Subjects: Karyn Twaronite, Partner and Americas Inclusiveness Officer; Karole Lloyd, Vice Chair, Regional Managing Partner for Southeast; Thear Suzuki, Advisory Services Principal

Karyn Twaronite, Karole Lloyd, Thear Suzuki

Twaronite, Lloyd, Suzuki

Opportunity: EY sees women in this age group facing additional family pressures, especially in a global environment where travel to see clients is crucial. “The pressure is not so much on retention as on advancement,” says Twaronite.

Strategy: EY’s efforts have focused on creating an environment that is more supportive of women—and men—with family concerns. Their initiatives are yielding progress: The turnover gaps between men and
women used to be 10 to 15 percent and they now are closer to 2 percent.

  • Analyze generational differences. EY commissioned a study on generational differences that showed Gen Y women were the most ambitious for advancement. “They want to have a full life and work here, too,” says Twaronite. The study showed that the biggest obstacle was unconscious bias, so EY has been training all of its professionals to recognize and address those issues.
  • Showcase successful female role models. “I totally underestimated the need for people in their 30s and 40s to see that there were women in their leadership who did have the capabilities and weren’t exhausted all the time,” says Lloyd. Lloyd, who has been with the firm for 35 years, cites the Inclusiveness Leadership Program, which pairs high-performing partners with an Americas executive board member for mentoring. She was in the first class in 1996 as a mentee and now is a mentor for another woman partner.
  • Assess team flexibility. “We have a customized approach for each individual,” Twaronite says, noting that developing a team calendar enables managers to address the demands of a global client-service business while giving people the freedom to not be on call 24/7.
  • Pay attention to on-boarding of new hires. Suzuki, who has four children, provides an example: She joined EY a year and a half ago after 16 years with another firm. She was invited to join the Inclusiveness Leadership Program. “I’m an Asian woman. I didn’t grow up in my profession seeing a lot of role models. When I started, I was in EY Unplugged [a program that helps Blacks, Latinos and Asians acclimate in their first year]. It was authentic and transparent about how you make it work. It made all the difference for me,” she says.
  • Help women deal with guilt. “What I find many times is that our people are so demanding of themselves that we need to help them see what they can achieve,” says Lloyd. She cites a woman, 39, who had worked for EY for 13 years and went on maternity leave. When she came back, she wanted to be a partner but was struggling with “how to do it all.” Lloyd helped her focus on doing her job while at work and not worrying about it when at home. “We told her that 32 hours of you is better than you leaving the firm,” she says. “It’s about helping individuals get over the guilt when the rest of their team is working 60 hours.” Twaronite adds that women often feel like impostors. “We have to focus on all they are doing, not the negative,” she says.
  • Measure and publicize success. Besides the improved retention rates, EY notes that in 1996, women were between 4 and 6 percent of all partners. Today, they comprise 20 percent of partners. In 1996, there were no female managing partners. Today, almost 40 percent of the managing partners are women. In 1996, the Americas executive board had no women. Today, a third of the board is female.

Case Study No. 2: AT&T

Interview Subjects: Debbie Storey, Senior Vice President of Talent Development and Chief Diversity Officer; Belinda Grant-Anderson, Vice President, Workforce Development & Diversity

Debbie Storey, AT&T


Opportunity: Telecommunications and technology firm AT&T has a good history of retaining women but is finding it increasingly difficult to find qualified tech women. “It’s less about our ability to provide a good place to work as the fact they are finding themselves so much in demand,” says Storey, noting that several tech women at the general-manager level have been recruited away.

Strategy:  Women moving into the top levels at AT&T need to have field experience. The lack of mobility for women with families has often hindered advancement. AT&T is focused on addressing this challenge as well as hiring and keeping more technical women.

  • Have conversations with women earlier in their careers. “For example, a woman is married with children and we tell her we have great news, that we are promoting her and her new position is in another city,” Storey says. “We find a lot women just aren’t prepared. They worry that if they don’t accept it, their career will stall but it’s difficult because of their husband’s career. We need to start having these conversations at every milestone—to get them thinking and talking about what moving means.”
  • Communication and real-life assistance is critical. AT&T has created a World of Women portal that offers a multitude of resources around its hub cities—Dallas, Atlanta and parts of New Jersey—that offer information on best places to live, where the good schools are, childcare options, doctors, etc. It also enables them to connect with other women who have undertaken similar moves. “It takes a lot of the fear of the unknown away,” Storey says.
  • Address employees’ lives holistically. The company has also rolled out a program called Corporate Athlete where it teaches its leaders to focus on four areas of balance: spiritual, physical, mental and emotional. “It’s not the people who are working 80 hours a week who are the best; it’s the people who are recharged and energized,” Storey says.
  • Leverage technology. The company has rolled out a new portal called Work Smart, which is a digital way for people to interact and collaborate including virtual whiteboarding.
  • Use employee resource groups and diversity councils to assess retention challenges. AT&T’s Women’s Leadership Council is charged with constantly reevaluating what it takes to make AT&T “a great place for women and their families,” notes Grant-Anderson. “We have to look at each job individually. A strong performer can have a great deal of flexibility, but if this is a job that requires face to face for specific hours, it might be a job the person can’t do at this stage of their life,” she says.
  • Sponsorship is critical to women’s success. AT&T’s mentoring program pairs high-potential women, Blacks, Latinos and Asians with one of Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson’s direct reports.  “Sponsorship happens more organically but we are seeing it more frequently,” says Storey. “When a woman’s name comes up, people who weren’t in her chain of command would say they didn’t know her. Now, with more champions, there are other people who know her.”
  • Don’t wait for “exit interviews,” have “stay interviews.” “We ask them to talk about the most important reasons they are staying with the company and what they need for a long-term arrangement,” says Storey.

Case Study No. 3: Kellogg Company

Interview Subject: Sammie Long, Senior Vice President, Global Human Resources

Sammie Long, Kellogg Company


Opportunity: Kellogg’s greatest challenge for women is in career development and ensuring women are receiving enough professional development, as well as the right assignments, says Long. “We are going to take a timeout and do something different.”

Strategy: Kellogg is looking to leverage its employee resource groups more for career development as well as thoroughly review its performance-management evaluations.

  • Look at expanding women’s resource groups. The company has strong employee resource groups in the United States and is looking to make the women’s group global. As a first step, last September the Women at Kellogg group held a global forum on Growing Your Career, with 200 attendees from the United States, Europe and Latin America. President and CEO John Bryant opened the session, which was attended by 30 of the company’s most senior executives. The company has also started a Women of Supply Chain group and is thinking of adding Women in Procurement and Women in Sales.
  • Review career-development guides. Kellogg is updating all of its guides for all functions, with mobility and flexibility in mind. “Most [senior] functions now require people to go 24/7. The expectation impacts more women than men,” Long says.
  • Assess how managers interact with women, especially Black, Latina and Asian women. “Women of color tell us that background can impact coaching and how they get feedback. We are working with managers around effective performance around cultural differences,” Long says.
  • Ask questions about work/life and flexibility. Like AT&T and EY, Kellogg works to adapt flexibility to the needs of the individual. But the company also asks its employees: “What is the one thing we could do to support you in your work/life?” Long says this has led the company to realize it needs more support in certain areas, such as trailing spouses, especially globally. “Families move—it isn’t just one person,” she says.

Case Study No. 4: Time Warner

Interview Subject: Jonathan Beane, Executive Director, Workforce Diversity & Inclusion

Jonathan Beane, Time Warner


Opportunity: While Time Warner doesn’t have a retention concern for women, some female talent has been poached. There also isn’t enough movement at the top to create opportunities for high-potential women. “If you are in your 30s and early 40s and are well positioned and well thought of, you are going be sought after,” says Beane.

Strategy: Time Warner is looking at creating opportunity and advancement for women by assessing assignments and projects and creating more mobility between its business units.

  • Communicate about career needs. Time Warner has a lot of talented C-suite employees in their 40s and early 50s who aren’t going anywhere, says Beane, who notes that the average tenure for the C-suite at one of their divisions is over 25 years. That limits mobility of younger women. “We are making sure we have a dialogue with them to see what else can keep them here. It might be other responsibilities or a lateral move that has better prospects.”
  • Look at your pipeline and potential silos. Beane notes that Time Warner has not been good about moving people from one business unit to another and thus has lost some talent. “We are working on that. There are a ton of really talented people who would be good at other businesses,” he says, noting that developing leaders who understand the entire business is an end goal.
  • Messages on flexibility need to be reinforced with line managers. While the CEO and senior leaders may say they are fine with flexible-work arrangements, Beane notes that there are managers who then say, “I’m old school and I’m not comfortable with this. I want my team to come to the office.” He advocates stronger messaging at every level about the importance of flexibility as a retention/engagement tool. Using senior executives as role models who use flexible schedules would be an excellent way to bring the message home, he says.

Case Study No. 5: Eli Lilly and Company


Charlotte Hawthorne, Janice Chavers, Irma Tragesser

Hawthorne, Chavers, Tragesser

Interview Subjects: Charlotte Hawthorne, Consultant, Global Diversity and Inclusion; Janice Chavers, Director, Diversity and HR Communications; Irma Tragesser, Consultant, Global Patient Outcomes and Real World Evidence

Opportunity: As a large global company, marketing in 125 countries, Eli Lilly and Company is challenged by the different cultural needs of women. “We have to take care of women in so many places—including Saudi Arabia and countries where the cultures are different,” says Chavers.

Strategy: The company has adapted “cultural flexibility” as a key strategy of meeting needs of all employees, including working parents and single people.

  • Adapt flexibility to suit the individual and the manager. “Formal programs work for some but these are much more individualized,” says Hawthorne. “The expectation is that you get the work done. I describe it as when I can walk out at 1 p.m. and I’m not feeling like someone’s looking at me or criticizing me.” The company also has several hundred employees participating in teleworking, which an employee can request for either a short time or permanently.
  • Provide necessary services to make people’s lives easier. Lilly offers everything from dry cleaning to emergency backup childcare and eldercare to helping find summer programs for children.
  • Showcase female role models on intranet. Chavers notes that the company tries to feature women leaders and its female development programs around the world on its intranet. As an example, she cites an article on Irma Tragesser, who grew up in Mexico and moved to Indianapolis. Tragesser, a Consultant in Global Patient Outcomes and Real World Evidence, found support at Lilly through the employee resource group Organization of Latinos (OLA). “When I moved here [to get married], everybody said Lilly was a great place to work for and they were right,” Tragesser says. “The affinity group and the Connecting Hearts program have had a major personal impact on me.”

Case Study No. 6: Monsanto


Juan Ferreira, Monsanto


Interview Subject: Juan Ferreira, Vice President, Global Marketing, Global Crop Protection, Global Technology Development

Opportunity: As a global company, Monsanto has many opportunities domestically and internationally for women in sales. The significant travel required, however, has created concerns for mid-career women.

Strategies: The company has increasingly tried to be flexible with its travel requirements and to assess the different cultural needs of women working in various regions.

  • Be open-minded about territories. Ferreira notes that in the agriculture industry in particular, sales territories can be widespread. “We are rethinking this. We are trying to find regions of sales in a country where travel is closer,” he says, noting strategies such as planning travel so a sales manager only needs to be on the road two out of every four weeks.
  • Cultural competence is key. On a global basis, assessing and understanding cultural differences is crucial, especially in the male-driven agricultural industry, says Ferreira, adding that a woman in Pakistan recently won one of the company’s top sales awards.
  • Use maternity leaves as opportunities. Monsanto often uses a maternity leave as a chance to give a junior woman the ability to step up into more responsibilities. “It keeps the job open for the person on leave but lets someone else use that temporary opportunity for development,” Ferreira says.
  • Use employee resource groups to connect women. Monsanto has employee resource groups that help connect senior and junior talent through events and programs, and helps employees develop leadership skills outside their current position. Resource groups also provide a venue for employees with similar needs or backgrounds to connect. Monsanto’s organizational survey has shown that those in a group are more engaged and those with higher engagement have a lower “intent to leave.”