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Nancy Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School where she holds the James E. Robison chair of Business Administration. Koehn's research focuses on how leaders, past and present,[…]

Businesses need to figure out how to keep their female talent.

Question: What needs to change in business?

Nancy Koehn: I think a number of tectonic plates need to shift so that men and women are on a more equal footing.  From the business perspective, large companies have to figure out how to retain their best talent.  Their best talent is, on average, half women in many, many industries.  In some industries it’s more than half their work force.  We have to figure out a way to retain women and keep them in the paid work force, and keep them involved in their careers and link them to their passions through the extraordinarily important moments of having a child and raising that child.  We have to open up the dialogue and begin to talk about this in ways that aren’t about a kind of toggle switch.  A woman steps out.  She’s out for five or six years and then she tries to get back in.  That is not enough.  It’s not enough to have the best people working for companies.  It’s not enough for women in terms of their different life options.  It simply doesn’t make sense.

A second thing that I think needs to change is that we need to start talking – and it would be enormously beneficial if we can do this at the level of the corporation, at the level of the silverback gorillas in the power echelons of this country and other countries – if we can begin talking about what it means to create a family that … in a nurturing and satisfying way.  That’s a different language than work-life balance.  That’s different language than work-family.  We need to start talking like this with more of a nuance that the journey that so many of us are on trying to create and sustain warm and loving families that bring forth responsible, loving, healthy children   … that is a more nuanced dialogue that’s in keeping with the nuance, and difficulty, and messiness of trying to work well and live well as a family member, a parent, and a citizen.  So I think we need to change the dialogue.

And I think thirdly, what business can do is to start very early on helping stake out their own values in relationship to the units that men and women and kids live in.  So we don’t talk about business values in terms of families.  I mean a few schools do.  Perhaps some religious institutions do.  A few community organizations do.  But very few of the large, extremely good corporate citizens in this county talk about their work and their corporate mission in terms of families; and yet everyone has a family, and everyone is very much affected in terms of the possibilities and their paths by what that family is and what it becomes.  So I think we need to open the windows. 

When I first moved to Britain as a graduate student many years ago, I noticed there were no screens on the windows.  And I remember thinking that Europeans live with a more flow … a more open throughway between nature and domesticated space – or between nature and man than Americans do.  We need to create those same throughways, or byways, or open windows without screens between business and families.

Recorded on: 6/12/07