What Makes a Great Workplace for Women? (Not What Most Companies Think)

Despite holding 47% of all jobs, women account for fewer than one-third of American CEOs. It’s a disparity that’s as glaring as it is familiar to those who follow gender equality. But the view from the top can overlook an equally severe threat to the management pipeline: How women and men experience the workplace differently as they climb the corporate ladder.

In researching the 2017 Best Workplaces for Women, Great Place to Work uncovered important gaps in how women and men feel about their careers, as well as encouraging factors that can improve the wellbeing of all employees.

Same promotions, different outlook

We surveyed more than 400,000 people about elements of work life that contribute to a strong team and a great career. Positive responses from men increased consistently between front-line jobs and different levels of management. For women, though, opinions of their workplace actually decreased slightly between front-line managers and mid-level leadership. Their scores rose as they entered the executive ranks, but even at the top of the organization their average survey responses came in four percentage points lower than their male counterparts’.

“Enthusiasm should grow with an employee’s responsibilities and rewards. If women supervisors don’t feel quite as good about their jobs as men, that’s not just a fairness issue. It can cause high-potential managers to leave while jeopardizing the quality of leadership in all levels of the organization,” said Chinwe Onyeagoro, the president of Great Place to Work.

The growing share of women in management underscores her point. Roughly 40% of managers are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and they fill a disproportionate share of leadership roles in several industries. (These include medical and health services, where women account for an overwhelming 74% of managers.) Even a small gap in the outlook between men and women can increase attrition, cut institutional knowledge and result in fewer candidates for top roles down the road.

Women (like men) want buy-in

So what makes a great workplace for women? Not what many companies seem to assume. Efforts to promote gender equity often focus disproportionately on working mothers. As valuable as benefits like family leave and flexible scheduling are, parents with young children represent only a portion of the female workforce. Our research found that women employees’ perception of work-life balance actually had a limited effect on their intent to stay with their companies for the long haul. By contrast, women who said they’re treated as full team members regardless of position were five times more likely to plan long-term careers at their businesses, compared to colleagues who didn’t feel this way. Likewise, women who said they make a difference at their company were 27 times more likely to say it’s also a great place to work.

See the full 100 Best Workplaces for Women 2017 list.

The Best Workplaces for Women often create this critical sense of buy-in though programs that benefit the entire workforce. At Delta Air Lines (DAL), employees took home profit-sharing payouts equal to more than a fifth of their eligible earnings in 2015. The bank accounts of eligible employees also reflect the team’s performance in the form of monthly $100 bonuses when operational targets are met. Demographics matter, of course, and fairness in employee advancement should be a given. But between promotions, few things tie a woman’s work to the overall mission quite like a share of the company’s success.

Professional development is another important investment the Best Workplaces for Women make in their teams. The No. 1 company on the list, Texas Health Resources, helps employees built their academic credentials from the GED through graduate coursework. This includes thousands in tuition reimbursement offered to both full- and part-time staff. Other development programs place a particular emphasis on the pipeline for licensed nurses. These include a one-year residency and mentorship support for new graduates, as well as a flexible career program for mid-career nurses who can continue their patient care while stretching their job responsibilities and learning new skills.

A win for women is a win for others

Another valuable finding from our research was a connection between the experience of women and that of other co-workers. Our surveys consistently show less-positive results from minority, LGBT, younger and lower-ranking employees compared to their colleagues who are white, straight, older or higher up the chain of command. At companies we’ve surveyed that achieve a smaller “experience gap” for women, though, gaps shrunk for all of these other groups, as well.

“It turns out that exceptional work cultures for women also produce outstanding workplaces for all employees,” said Great Place to Work’s Onyeagoro. “Companies that lead in this way—by emphasizing the daily engagement and long-term buy-in of women—will see better performance from their teams and a stronger slate of leaders to helm their organizations in the future.”


Jessica Rohman and Tabitha Russell are director of content and certification program manager, respectively, at Great Place to Work, the longtime research partner for Fortune’s annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For and other Best Workplaces lists, including the Best Workplaces for Women.

Click here to see the 100 Best Workplaces for Women list.

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