Author Maz Evans was typing rapidly in an airport when a man sidled up next to her and said what he undoubtedly thought was a compliment—that he’d love to hire her as his secretary.

“If he ever wanted to be mine, he’d already failed the interview,” Maz recounted.

Talk about an antiquated stereotype. If you really want to attract and retain more female employees, you have to start by rejecting this kind of Stone-Age thinking. But get this—at the same time, you also have to understand the data some stereotypes may be based on. This may sound crazy, but I’ll explain.

When to pay attention to the data

Another synonym for stereotypes? Statistics. Not literally, but take a look at our random airport man. He knew that most secretaries, or in today’s world, administrative assistants, are female. Or precisely, 94.6 percent of American secretaries are, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

His mistake, and what transformed the statistic into a stereotype, was transferring that knowledge to the idea that all women would want to be administrative assistants.

Let’s be clear: You should never rely on stereotypes and think or act like random airport man. Instead, you should find ways to understand statistics and use them to help your team. For example, if research says millennials prefer more growth opportunities than other age groups, find ways to incorporate that insight into your workplace. That is, if you have a lot of millennial employees or want to attract more to join your company.

Sure, it doesn’t mean that all millennials are focused on career growth—that would be silly. But using that data point will give you a better chance to find the exact mix of things your team needs to be successful and happy.  

Below are some research-backed ways you can attract and retain more women on your team.

Offer as much flexibility as you can.

Harvard Professor Claudia Goldin’s research shows that women often value work flexibility above income, while men often value income. Therefore, offering flex-time, part-time, and telecommuting options can make your company more attractive to women.

Institute a meaningful maternity leave policy.

The average woman will have two children, and most of those new moms will be working while they’re pregnant and then returning to work within four months after giving birth. Even if someone isn’t planning to have a baby for many years, they may consider maternity leave policies when looking for a job.

When Accenture increased its paid maternity leave, 40 percent fewer mothers left their jobs after returning to work.

Be thoughtful and fair with salaries

Everyone wants a fair salary, but because of the gender wage gap, women are rightfully concerned about being shorted. The average man earns more than the average woman.

Be honest about your compensation practices and open about how you determine salaries. If someone finds out you’re paying them less than their male counterpart, regardless of the reason, they’ll probably start looking to leave. In practice, this may mean giving your highest and best offer at first, using a specific salary model for all offers, or checking industry standards.

Get creative with PTO.

Women are more likely to be the “primary parent.” That is, the parent who goes to parent-teacher conferences, or gets called when little Timothy needs to be picked up from daycare. Women are also more often the primary caregiver to their aging parents, and sometimes their aging in-laws.

Having a PTO plan that recognizes that not all time off can be scheduled in advance is a great way to meet these crucial needs.

When to reject the data

Anytime you have an individual sitting in front of you, you should only think about that individual and not the overall group(s) they fit into. Yes, statistically speaking most women prefer flexibility over salary, but that woman sitting in front of you may not feel that way.

Instead of assuming, “Jane has small children, so she won’t want to travel,” you should ask Jane directly for her preferences. Say, “Are you interested in this assignment? It involves 50 percent travel for the next six months,” the same way you would ask a male employee. Let Jane tell you for herself whether or not she’s interested.

Back to our lame airport encounter. More American women are administrative assistants than engineers. But that doesn’t mean that the woman you’re talking to wouldn’t be a great engineer and a lousy admin.

What you want are overall policies that appeal to the largest group, but specific actions that focus on the individual. Make flex-time available, but don’t assume any one employee (male or female) wants to use it. Why? Because people are complex and don’t fit into any one bucket.

The good news is that you don’t need any intricate hiring tricks to help you attract and retain great female employees. You just need to throw out any archaic thinking and treat people how they deserve to be treated. It’s as simple as that.

Suzanne Lucas Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate HR where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers. Now she writes and speaks about human resources, business, and how to make your job and company the best it possibly can be.
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