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Hire more women—and do it quickly. That’s the upshot of new research underscoring the importance of overcoming barriers to women’s participation in the workforce.

Increasing representation of women within an organization swiftly and substantively decreases the overall rate of employee turnover, according to Cara Maurer, assistant professor, general management and strategy at Ivey Business School at Western University. Maurer and co-author Israr Qureshi, of Australian National University, recently published a study in the journal Organizational Studies offering insight into how companies should proceed when seeking to broaden diversity.

The researchers examined data from annual employment equity reports for 499 Canadian private and public organizations, spanning 14 years. “We wanted to understand what was actually happening in Canada, over a larger time frame, with representation of women,” Maurer says. The research was finished before the pandemic; Maurer expects the results would be even more heightened now.

While the data shows firms are hiring women, they’re not, on average, retaining them. “It’s not enough to say ‘let’s hire’ but then not pay attention to what happens after,” Maurer says. To explore how retaining female employees can be beneficial to a firm, the researchers focused on the relationship between the representation of women on the payroll and the employee turnover rate.

“As the representation of women goes up in companies, you see a drop in what happens to overall employee turnover,” Maurer says. The researchers theorize increasing the number of women in a workforce leads to more relationship-building throughout the company. This, in turn, boosts “job embeddedness,” or specific factors influencing employee retention, including links to the others in the organization, sense of fit and perception of costs of quitting.

“This relationship aspect of it hasn’t been studied as much. We often think about new job security or good pay, and not necessarily about how people are relating socially in the organization,” Maurer says. “The more you add these meaningful relationships inside, there is more ability to feel embedded at work.”

The researchers found that the pace of hiring also matters. A rapid and substantive change in the representation of women has more positive effects for organizations than a slow and incremental change, the study states. Speedy increases bring more and better relationships.

“If you’re going quickly, you really are bringing so many more opportunities for women to form relationships,” Maurer says. While the research doesn’t outline a specific recommended time frame, the researchers advise recruiters to go “as fast as seems reasonable, given your specific context and your specific situation.”

The pandemic has knocked women’s participation in the labour force down from a historic high to its lowest level in 30 years, says Vandana Juneja, executive director of Catalyst Canada, a non-profit organization working to accelerate progress for women in the workplace, citing recent research from RBC.

She agrees with the importance of bringing women into the workplace, but adds it’s also important to consider other aspects of a diverse workforce. “If we have a homogenous group of women who are being brought into an organization, there may be unintended consequences with respect to inclusion,” she says. “We want to ensure that there is a diverse mix of individuals, and whether that be diversity through race or ethnicity or age, for example, or ability. In whatever way that diversity shows up, it’s important to have a mix of diversity.”

The study did not focus on whether women were joining the organization at a particular level. Similar studies have looked more specifically at women on boards or in executive positions, Maurer says, but this research considered women throughout the entire organization.

The research highlights the need for employers to give employees opportunities for social relationships to form in both physical and virtual spaces, Maurer says. What’s key is creating a possibility for relationships to be built, which is particularly important during the pandemic. Employers should be checking in and ensuring people feel linked to the organization, not isolated and like they are fending for themselves, she says. “It’s such a stressful time for everyone, and I think the relational piece is probably one of the most helpful aspects to get all of us through it,” Maurer says.

Amid a pandemic that’s disproportionately affecting women’s workforce participation, Juneja agrees that leaders should be reaching out to employees, especially those who they may not be hearing from regularly. “There’s the possibility for people to get a bit lost in this environment right now where we’re virtual,” she says.

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