10/04/2014 09:56 BST | Updated 09/06/2014 06:59 BST

How Can Businesses Retain Women?

According to research by Right Management, 66 per cent of HR directors questioned, believed that women would make up half of leadership roles by 2018. But how realistic is this prediction?

Women aren't less able to lead, but they're more likely to leave the workforce - one of the driving factors being high child care costs, which makes it more economical for the parent that earns least to stay at home. Of course, when you factor in the future cost of a career break, in terms of unrealised, or delayed, promotions and pay rises, that benefit looks less tempting.

Shared parental leave (which will be in effect from 2015 in the UK) is seen as a significant aid to the retention of women in the workforce, but as men have been less likely to take their full quota of paternity leave, will it make that much of a difference?

This is a cultural issue, and cultural issues take time to change. Individual businesses need to adapt their cultures to encourage retention, but it's not something that can be tackled in the policy handbook alone. Leaders need to practice the policies that they preach.

Why it matters

Businesses invest a significant amount of time and money in recruiting and training employees. Both men and women go through stages in their lives when they require more flexibility. Businesses can choose to work with them, or do nothing and watch their talent walk out the door knowing that theycan no longer benefit from its investment in their skills.

Businesses benefit from a mix of leadership styles. McKinsey & Co found that businesses with gender-balanced executive committees had a 56 per cent higher operating profit than businesses with male-only committees. But in order to see women leaders, businesses need to retain more female employees.

As one executive found, women like doing business with other women. Businesses that are trying to increase their appeal to women could benefit from having more prominent female team members as role models.

What businesses can do

Cultural change: This isn't about giving women special privileges, or championing flexible benefits for select groups of employees (like working mothers). I believe that businesses need to offer the same benefits to all their employees. This is essential to successful cultural change. Offering one group of people special benefits won't help the culture evolve, it may in fact reinforce it.

Flexible hours and virtual working: most of us have commitments outside of work. Whether it's caring responsibilities, education, pets, voluntary work or hobbies, giving people the chance to shape their work around their lives is important to me.

This benefits the business. Not only are people more flexible in their own attitudes - such as being willing to pick up some extra hours when a big project comes in - but it allows the business to offer a flexible service to clients - essential to those companies that work outside the traditional 9-5.

Pew Research found that 47 per cent of American mothers wanted to work part-time rather than full-time (32 per cent). In the UK, the Department for Trade and Industry found that women leaders in the IT sector were leaving due to lack of flexible working opportunities.

Flexible working helps to retain women in the workforce, but it requires senior management to have a certain attitude - they need to see those who work for them as adults, able to manage their own time, and trust them to deliver the work. If there's no trust, or the culture is paternalistic or micro-managing, flexible and virtual working practices won't thrive.

Don't make empty promises: it's easy to promote your flexible working policies, but businesses have to let employees use them. People who have accepted a job due, in part, to adaptable hours, only to encounter an office culture rife with presenteeism won't stay long.

Managers shouldn't underestimate the benefits of modelling behaviours. If employees see their co-workers and managers staying late all the time, shooting them disapproving glares as they run out the door at 5pm, they may feel pressure to do likewise.

Develop a collaborative culture: meetings don't have to take place in the office. At Emoderation, we encourage our virtual team to get together regularly for coffee or lunch (funded by the company). We hold regular company get-togethers, and use internal social media platforms such as Yammer to act as a virtual water cooler.

It's important to create a culture where people feel they can work with, and learn from, each other. And where they can approach senior team members with suggestions.

Pay it forward: successful business women need to look back at those women just starting their careers and offer mentorship. While having a career mentor is common in the American workplace, it's pretty rare in the UK.

It's a good idea to have a dedicated expert in skills training in the business. Someone who can spot talent, encourage the development of team members and ultimately promote talent from within all areas of the business.

Retention of women in the workplace is an issue that many firms are getting to grips with. Businesses like Deloitte and Mckinsey & Co have launched initiatives to support the retention and advancement of women.

Others, like Goldman Sachs, American Express and Intel, are investing in leadership training for women, while Dell has established a networking hub for women in business. There are other great initiatives, like the First Women Awards, that champion the retention and advancement of women in the workplace.

It doesn't take long to type up a policy document, but changing corporate culture takes longer. It means implementing these new policies on a daily basis. It means using positive reinforcement to show workers that it is okay to work from home, and that you trust them to get their work done without looking over their shoulder. These changes won't just benefit women, but the whole business.