How We Closed the Gap Between Men’s and Women’s Retention Rates

By Michelle Stohlmeyer RussellLori Moskowitz Lepler, and Marcia Thomsen


Many companies continue to struggle with advancing and retaining women within their workforce. When we studied our own progress at BCG, we found that traditional workplace concerns—such as work-life balance, maternity leave, and differential ambitions—did not completely explain the gender disparities in our senior cohorts. According to analysis, the other missing link for women was a high-quality, day-to-day apprenticeship experience at the firm.

After studying BCG’s annual employee survey data, specifically that of high-potential, midcareer women who left the firm, we found that the following statement received the lowest scores: “I am satisfied with the apprenticeship and feedback I received.” Moreover, in a survey of employees leaving BCG, departing women ranked mentorship, not work-life balance, as the number one topic that the firm needed to improve on. Finally, in a survey of all North American staff, asking about 16 options of what people seek from a manager, “forming a strong relationship with my manager(s)” and “having someone in leadership who cares about me and reached out long after the project ended” were the most valued dimensions for women.

Equipped with this data, BCG teamed up with leadership development consultancy BRANDspeak five years ago to launch a bold transformation across its offices in North America: Apprenticeship-in-Action (AiA). The AiA program focuses on the three components of apprenticeship that drive satisfaction and retention: relational connectedness, strengths-based development, and coaching for a range of effective communication styles—levers that are relevant to any manager who strives to get the best from individuals and teams.

We have seen remarkable improvements. Female promotion rates have increased nationwide across all cohorts, with a 22-percentage-point rise among senior managers, while the attrition of senior women has slowed by five percentage points. Retention of women in midcareer levels is now at parity with that of men. Satisfaction with BCG’s efforts to retain women has increased by 20 percentage points for all women and by 30 percentage points for senior women.

Based on the striking results we have seen so far, we recommend three actions for any company in which talent management defines competitive advantage:

  • Embed apprenticeship into the delivery of core products and services. Identify a model that develops the talent you need and resonates with the diverse set of individuals you employ. Embed that model, and monitor the impact.
  • Prioritize and monitor relationships. Build opportunities for relationships to develop and flourish—and for high-performing talent and underrepresented groups, ensure they have performance-enhancing relationships at all levels.
  • Encourage diverse strengths and styles. A truly diverse organization that reaps the benefits of diversity needs to value a range of communication and working styles. Feedback should build on the differentiating strengths of the individual rather than their weaknesses.

BCG is in the process of implementing the AiA model beyond North America, aspiring to a global rollout. We also have plans to introduce AiA to other companies through our client work. And while originally designed with a gender focus, the program has benefited both men and women, with broader applicability to other diversity networks, including ethnic diversity, LGBT employees, and veterans.

We recognize that we have further to go before we reach our ambition of gender parity. Nonetheless, our experimentation offers a rare example of long-term progress on diversity goals. Results to date make us optimistic that transforming the day-to-day apprenticeship experience is fundamental to improving the satisfaction, retention, and advancement of our diverse workforce.

Read the full Harvard Business Review article