Flexibility and salary are key to retaining talented professional women

(Expanded version re: River Valley Business Report)

By Jodi Vandenberg-Daves and Betsy Morgan

November 2008

Large companies lure and retain quality employees by offering a wide range of flexible benefit options.   Working Mother magazine showcases its Top 100 Companies for Working Mothers yearly, with companies such as American Express setting a high bar. Some of the nation's largest companies offer a wide variety of work/life options including on-site child care, paid maternity/paternity leave, telecommuting, and phased-in re-entry for new parents.  Working   Mother  asked its readers: "What do women want?"  and characterized the responses as  "More!  A full 74 percent of our survey moms expressed a desire for a better menu of flex options…The most crowd-pleasing benefit of all was the ability to start and end workdays at flexible times, valued by 90 percent of our moms."

Like the rest of the nation, the Coulee Region has a high percentage of working women. Nationally, over 60% of women with children under the age of six are employed. Consequently, we set out to explore the perceptions of work/life policy, work satisfaction, and salary satisfaction for local professional women through an on-line survey and interviews. We believed the results would be of use to employers and employees.


An electronic survey was e-mailed to a sample of Coulee Region employed women. 125 women completed the survey, most of whom (65%) worked for employers with more than 50 employees.  The major employer types were non-profit organizations (32%), education (33%) and health care (16%).  The vast majority of the women (77%) were salaried.  Of the respondents, 81% had children under 18 at home, 80% were married or living with a partner, and 21% had elder care responsibilities.

In addition to the on-line survey, a sub-sample of the respondents provided in-depth face-to-face interviews.

THE BIG PICTURE: "What do women want?"  "More!"

Survey and interview results suggest that although working women value flexibility, they also value salaries and opportunities for career challenges.  When women in the survey were asked about the primary factors affecting their job satisfaction, "A work environment that fosters wok-life balance" tied with "opportunities for creativity and challenges." Both factors ranked only slightly higher than "flexibility" and "salary," which scored almost even.  Specifics regarding these factors are highlighted below.  


 The Coulee Region has a history of attending to work-life issues.  For instance, in the La Crosse Area  Chamber of Commerce 2000 study "Family Friendly Policies," La Crosse employers recognized the benefits of flexibility, ranging from better morale to stronger teams and elimination of tardiness at that time.  Leading area employers on the cusp of the new millennium were forward looking in acknowledgement the changing demographics of the area workforce, including an increase in two-parent and single-parent households.

Our survey contains some good news on employee satisfaction nearly decade after the publication of the Chamber of Commerce study:  A majority of the professional women surveyed, 61% strongly agreed or somewhat agreed with the statement, "The array of policies available to help employees balance work and life commitments in my workplace is adequate."  It is also impressive that 78% of respondents believed that their direct supervisor was knowledge about and supportive of work-life policies.

At the same time, most women (58%) believed that more supportive work-life policies should be implemented.   When women were asked what they believed prevented the implementation of new initiatives to address the challenge of work-life balance, 38% (the largest response) believed that the major obstacle was the lack of a plan by the employer to replace people requesting leaves from the workplace, a situation which potentially leaves colleagues with additional work without compensation.  This finding is not surprising given that the U.S. lags behind other nations in providing comprehensive leave policies to facilitate work-life balance.


Despite the fact that the Coulee Region has relatively few large employers, the survey yielded some consistent differences in the perceptions of policy when comparing women who work for larger organizations with those who work for smaller ones. The survey also suggested that when it comes to providing flexibility, the areas large employers could take a cue from its smaller employers.

Although women employees of large organizations reported that their organizations offered notable high-impact programs like Employee Assistance programs, fitness training, and other work-life benefits like child-care subsidies women in smaller organizations reported higher levels of flexibility regarding work-life arrangements. 

This finding was borne out in the interviews:    women in the smaller organizations were more satisfied with the flexibility of their work environment.  One non-profit director put her finger on it when she said, "The more personal you are, the more flexible you are."  A higher percentage of respondents from smaller organizations answered positively to questions about the availability of benefits such as part-time professional positions, flexible schedules, and leadership training for women,   

Though smaller organizations, especially non-profits, are usually not able to offer high salaries, they can compensate employees with flexibility and opportunities for professional development.  Interviews with several area non-profit leaders provided additional evidence on this point, suggesting that the creation of these incentives was often a deliberate approach to putting values into practice to create a work-life-friendly workplace.  Another director acknowledged that the corporate world has more resources, like support for management through a phone call to Human Resources and EAP programs, and small organizations have "no guarantee" of pay increases.  But, she said, "there is more flexibility to act on your values" in small organizations.  Leaders of those organizations, she said, "can go outside the box."  She summed up her own learning as a manager in both types of organizations by saying, "Most employees will make the right decision for themselves and their families." In her view, "The best employee is the one who says I'm going to give you everything I can without compromising either position (work or family or whatever's important to them.)"


Though flexibility can help offset concerns regarding compensation, it is worth repeating that salary is a major factor in women's job satisfaction in the Coulee Region.  Nationally, women, particularly mothers, lag behind men in earnings at all levels of education.  Wisconsin women earn less than the national average, and Wisconsin ranks 45 th  in the nation in the earnings gap between women and men. While the cost of living is lower in Wisconsin than other states, the gender wage gap exists regardless of the cost of living.  (For more on Wisconsin-specific statistics, see  www.iwpr.org .)


The survey and the interviews suggested that Coulee Region patterns reflect many of the national trends in an economy with high rates of female labor force participation and most women combining paid work with caregiving roles. Smart employers should and do pay attention to optimal ways to provide flexibility to employees.  National research suggests that employee satisfaction and retention for both male and female employees is higher when employers provide a wide variety of work/life balance opportunities.  We hope this research contributes to an on-going conversation among La Crosse employers about what is possible in developing work environments that foster productivity, balance and work satisfaction, and what major gaps need to be addressed.   Most importantly, employers need to listen to their employees and monitor national trends in order to stay competitive and retain talented women.