What women really want in the workplace (and why men matter)

Women at Work

If you want to start a fight at the next big family gathering, you could bring up the issue of gender and employment. Since long before the feminist movement hit center stage in the 1960s, social and academic commentators have been arguing over the role of women in the workplace.

The discussion has moved beyond simply should women work to how and why they want to. While it is now a given women can work in virtually any role currently occupied by a man, that doesn't necessarily mean they are motivated by the same factors as their male counterparts.

Flexibility and creativity top wish list

Power and prestige may do it for Don Draper and his colleagues on "Mad Men," but career-minded women are driven by a different definition of success.

That's the word from a recent survey of working women by BlogHer, a media network and publisher for women. According to a survey of members within the BlogHer community, money doesn't stand a chance against more intangible work benefits such as flexibility and the opportunity to use creative muscles.

When it comes to their dream job, survey respondents gave a thumbs up to the following attributes:

  • Flexibility: 36 percent
  • Creativity: 31 percent
  • Community: 11 percent

By comparison, money topped the list for only 8 percent of survey respondents, followed by ownership and recognition which garnered a nod from only 6 and 5 percent, respectively.

Flextime in the national spotlight

The BlogHer study might be of some consolation to Mitt Romney who was called out by critics during the 2012 presidential election for allegedly misunderstanding what it is women want in the workplace.

When answering a debate question about employment and gender inequality, the Republican nominee started his response by referencing his now infamous "binders full of women" and then proceeded to talk about how he was nice enough to let his chief of staff leave the office at 5 o'clock.

His comments quickly became the butt of jokes by virtually every comedian while some women scoffed at the idea that leaving the office at 5:00 p.m. constituted flextime. Although Romney may have appeared to be out of touch to some people, he may have actually been on to something. While checking out at 5:00 p.m. may not be flextime in many professions, it is a notable concession in the high powered world of politics, where early mornings and evening meetings are the norm.

More to the point, Romney was at least in the ballpark by recognizing women want the flexibility to balance work duties with their home life. Working Mother magazine, which ranks the best companies for mothers, notes 77 percent of employees at the top companies for 2012 use flex scheduling while half of employees at these firms telecommute.

How men affect women's career choices

Of course, not every woman is a mother which makes it difficult to generalize about women's workplace desires. Flextime might be great for working moms, but those without children may be more interested in getting a raise or moving up through the ranks of the business world. Both of those can be hard to find in corporate America.

According to Catalyst, an advocacy group devoted to gender equality in the workplace, women make up 51.4 percent of management, professional and related occupations. At the same time, they account for only 14.3 percent of executive officers and only 8.1 percent are top earners.

Interestingly, some research suggests men may be responsible for the lack of women on the path to top tier positions. But not in the way you might think. Last year, researchers at the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas at San Antonio found the availability of single men appears to influence female career paths.

The researchers found when women thought there were fewer men at their school, female students were more likely to express interest in pursuing ambitious careers. Likewise, in areas where fewer bachelors were available, a greater percentage of women were found in high-paying careers.

The takeaway for study authors was that if marriage and kids aren't on the horizon, women get serious about their careers. A provocative take on gender in the workplace for sure.

Many women, many wants

While the reasons for gender inequality in the workplace continue to be debated, the reality is working women are motivated by a variety of factors. While some may work out of necessity, others are employed simply because they love the job.

Indeed, the BlogHer survey found one in five respondents said they would absolutely continue their job even if they didn't need the money. And of those who do cite salary as an important factor for working, the survey found those women tended to fall into lower income brackets. As income increases, women appear to be seeking out the more intangible benefits of employment.

So what do women want in the workplace? All sorts of things. Just as there is no one answer to what men want in the workplace, women too are motivated differently depending on their family circumstances and career ambitions. But as women account for a larger percentage of working professionals it's worth investigating how employers could think outside of the box, in terms of benefits, perks and workplace culture, to try to answer that question.

Wage gap? Gender gap? Answers from Obama and Romney fall through the cracks, October 18, 2012, LA Times
A Scarcity of College Men Leads Women to Choose Briefcase over Baby, April 16, 2012, lib.umn.edu
U.S. Women in Business, 2013, catalyst.org
Women and Work 2012: New BlogHer Study Shows Job Flexibility and Creativity Matter to Women 3-6 Time, 2012, marketwire.com
100 Best Companies 2012, 2012, wmmsurveys.com