Big Idea 2013: Flexibility Without Shame

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Editor's note: Angel investor Sallie Krawcheck wrote this blog post last December about the mart long-term investment in "flexibility without shame" for working women. By Sallie Krawcheck (Past President, Merrill Lynch)

The US economic recovery is tepid at best, with growth in short supply. At the same time, progress on gender diversity has stalled, with the number of women in senior roles plateauing.

Solving the second challenge can help the first. Fully engaging women in the economy can increase GDP by as much as 9% ... but it will take some very different thinking.

It’s not for lack of trying. Companies have myriad diversity programs, diversity councils and diversity networking events to help women climb the career ladder. And there’s an entire industry built to exhort women on how to get ahead, with books on topics such as how to ask for a raise (not too hard and not too soft, lest one risk making the boss feel defensive).

But perhaps we’re trying to solve the wrong problem.

Working women who choose to have children are breaking into two broad groups: one works full-time, holding on, exhausted, through their children’s younger years. A full 60% (!) of these moms wish they had a flexible work option. And the other group – 5.4 million of them – steps out of the workforce during those years ... and pays the economic price. On trying to re-enter, 73% report trouble finding a job; and those who successfully do so suffer precipitous drops in income.

It’s time for smart companies to stop staring past the data and recognize a simple truth. Raising children, taking care of the home, working full-time – and, yes, fighting any vestiges of subtle discrimination – is exhausting. (See my LinkedIn post, “Let’s Admit It: Women are Different From Men” that walks through how even just 15 minutes a day of “hair and make-up” time adds up to more than one workweek a year. !!!)

No amount of “how to ask for a raise” coaching gets past the issue that, in our society, women still do twice the housework and three times the childcare of men – and just saying this should be more equitable hasn’t made it so.

Thus, to make meaningful progress, smart companies will build cultures and career paths that go beyond today’s flexibility approaches: they will enable true “flexibility without shame.” (And don’t say this already exists: if it did, we wouldn’t have 60% of working moms wishing for it.)

Smart companies will allow movement among different workstyles during the course of a career without implicitly penalizing individuals for their choices, as so often happens today. They will recognize that technology enables flexibility, productivity and team formation in ways not previously possible. They will recognize that engaging stay-at-home parents professionally for as little as one day a month will enable them to transition back to the workforce full-time seamlessly – and gain their gratitude for doing so. They will recognize that having employees fully engaged in part-time work can be better than their being distractedly engaged in full-time work (or, of course, opting out completely). They will recognize that women may work flexibly during parts of their careers, but that their longer, healthier lifespans will enable them to stay engaged for many years longer than men.

And, most of all, smart companies will recognize that really embracing “flexibility without shame” is a smart long-term investment. In turn, this will enable them to access a highly credentialed workforce ... allowing their competitors to host one more diversity cocktail party, hoping for a different result.

This post was originally posted at LinkedIn. About the guest blogger: Sallie Krawcheck is a past president of Global Wealth & Investment Management for Bank of America. In this role, she headed up the world's largest wealth management business, overseeing $2.3 trillion in client balances held at Merrill Lynch and U.S. Trust. She previously served as CEO and chairman for Citi Global Wealth Management, as well as chairman and CEO of Sanford C. Bernstein & Company. She is an angel investor in startups. Follow her on Twitter at @salliekrawcheck.

Women 2.0 readers: What's your big idea for establishing flexibility without shame?