Career development for women

Some effective principles and approaches

To the reader:

In my Jan. 11 column for BizTimes Milwaukee, I wrote about some of the challenges confronted by women with regard to developing effective mentoring relationships. In this column, I extend that discussion to talk about why mentoring matters within the broad context of organizational effectiveness. I also offer some suggestions for both organizations and individuals who want to improve their practices in this area.

As I shared in my January column, mentoring is a proven method for talent development with women (and other employees). Historically, women have been under-mentored. When women have been involved in mentoring, it has often been less effective because women tend not to receive mentoring from senior executives (men have historically occupied these roles).

That the capabilities of women tend not to be formally or systematically developed in many organizations is a strategic issue with far-reaching consequences regarding organizational effectiveness, especially given that women are forecasted to represent the largest segment of new entrants to the workforce over the next few years. Women, especially young women, will likely be drawn to and stay with organizations that have explicit processes for helping them: (1) assimilate to the organization and (2) develop their skillsets, over time.

Assimilation to an organization is the key factor in determining engagement and retention. It is analogous to “getting off to a good start.” When female employees do not assimilate easily and well to their new employment settings, they are more likely to become dissatisfied and leave. Assimilation can be viewed as a process of socializing and becoming acclimated. As researchers Ashford and Black have documented, newcomers to organizations often employ the following social behaviors in order to try to “fit in” to their new roles:

  • Information seeking to understand “how things work.”
  • Feedback seeking to find out how well others, especially superiors, feel they are doing.
  • Relationship building to try to build reciprocal, two-way relationships.
  • Job change negotiating to adjust to a new role and demonstrate competence and/or security.
  • Positive framing to try to put a positive spin on their new organization and role.

As documented by researcher John Berry, newcomers use one of four methods for dealing with their social experiences as they try to become part of a new organization:

  • Assimilating: Replacing their past perspectives with the perspective of their new organization.
  • Integrating: Synthesizing past perspectives with new perspectives.
  • Separating: Rejecting new perspectives and adhering to past perspectives.
  • Marginalizing: Failing to accept either old or new perspectives.

When female newcomers engage in separating or marginalizing, they become “flight risks” and are more likely to leave the organization in hopes of finding a more accepting and accommodating work setting elsewhere. A formal program of career development for newcomers, especially women, is the prescription for addressing these concerns.

Effective career development programs help women understand career mobility issues (i.e., what are the chances for promotion and career movement?). Such programs facilitate the formation of developmental relationships (i.e., connecting with mentors and workplace information networks). Ultimately, such programs help women develop a career “tool kit” of skills related to:

  • Understanding their interests, preferences and capabilities.
  • Identifying, obtaining and developing the needed skills and education.
  • Ongoing assessment of skills relative to opportunities.

In order for a career development program for women to be successful, organizations (and the senior executives, typically men, who lead them) need to make sure the program is properly positioned by examining the structure of the organization (i.e., checking to see whether women are disproportionately employed in the lowest paying jobs). They need to make sure that segregation does not pervade (i.e., checking to see that women are employed throughout the organizational hierarchy, including the power-based roles). Social integration must be the norm (i.e., women must have access to and be part of relationships that are important to career development).

Organizations that offer effective career development programs for women are advised to:

  • Form affinity groups to facilitate the career development of women.
  • Form core groups to allow women to form effective relationships across the organization, especially with powerful incumbents.
  • Form mentoring circles that bring together senior leaders with women for purposes of career development.
  • Establish an organizational climate conducive to networking and mentoring for women.
  • Have their executives emphasize creation of organizational conditions that foster the career development and upward mobility of women.

Women who want to be effective in developing their careers are advised to:

  • Be proactive in evaluating their career development opportunities.
  • Take full advantage of the resources professional organizations offer.
  • Engage in peer mentoring/networking.
  • Seek out additional networking opportunities through web groups, email, etc.

In my next column, I will extend this discussion further by exploring strategies that future-oriented leaders who understand the significance of this issue will want to investigate and pursue.

-Daniel Schroeder, Ph.D., is president of Brookfield-based Organization Development Consultants Inc. ( He can be reached at (262) 827-1901 or

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Dr. Daniel A. Schroeder is President/CEO of Organization Development Consultants, Inc. (ODC). ODC serves regional and national clients from its offices in suburban Milwaukee. Additionally, he teaches in the Organizational Behavior and Leadership (bachelor’s) and Organization Development (master’s) programs at Edgewood College (Madison, WI), programs that he founded and for which he served as Program Director.

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