Prioritizing Female Leadership Right Now is the Sign of an Enlightened Business


Rebecca Hourston, Managing Director, Global Head of Women’s Leadership Programs, Talking Talent

We kept wishing the world would change. Almost overnight, the wish has been granted – only not quite in the way we’d imagined. Watching the COVID-19 pandemic sweep across the globe, forcibly shunting individuals, businesses, and entire economies into behavior they’d never imagined possible, has left us clutching for hope. How can we harness this vast, ruinous, desperately fast change, and extract from it the prescription for leading our world of work into a lastingly transformed future? 

So much has been rotten, or stagnant, or behind the curve, or turgidly repetitive: the glacially slow progress towards gender balance; the gender pay chasms (never mind gaps); the unspoken rule that we have to pretend we don’t have families or home-life commitments to juggle; and rigid presenteeism have made securing a genuinely career-propelling flexible or part-time role about as likely as no-one speaking on top of each other on your next Zoom team call.

Fast-forward, and mixed up within all the heartache, tragedy and extreme disruption of these first few months of 2020, there are brilliant, inspiringly inclusive ways of working popping up all over the place – from the surge in reliance on previously untouched video-conferencing platforms to the creative ways teams are finding to connect, share, and (even) celebrate special occasions while working remotely.

The concepts of ‘inclusion’ and ‘inclusive leadership’ are being put to the test right now – and now, more than ever, businesses must ensure to prioritize female leadership; that in the fight for survival, or maintaining business as usual, women aren’t side-lined in the workplace. Here, I look at how companies must eschew the misguided – and ensure they’re on a mission to workplace greatness. These are all scenarios we’ve seen during lockdown – but forward-thinking businesses and savvy companies must approach them in the right way.

Misguided: “We need to be completely democratic, and not single out any specific groups of people to support at the moment.”

On a Mission: Past crises indicate that underrepresented talent will be at enormous risk.  Throw all you can at maintaining the progress you’ve already made in developing your female and other workplace minority pipelines, or it is highly likely you will plummet backward. Diversity improves business decisions and results – now would be the worst possible time to side-line focus on it. 

  • It’s right to talk about everyone, but women are still the biggest underrepresented talent in the corporate world. They are being impacted differently by the COVID fallout – particularly women of color.  
  • Women are already contemplating not coming back – and when she walks out the door, it costs firms more than when men do. The cost of someone leaving ranges from 16% of salary for low-paying positions to 20% for middle-tier management and over 200% for executive positions. The cost of a female position is 10-20% higher.
  • There’s an argument that women bring just the type of leadership skills that these times of change need – qualities such as ‘bringing the people with you’: collaboration, heart, balance, emotional intelligence. Many have noted that the countries leading the way in their COVID response (Germany, New Zealand, Taiwan) are led by women.

Misguided: “With a gazillion competing budget priorities and no government regulation on gender pay gap reporting, cutting our Women’s Leadership Development program is an obvious quick win.”

On a Mission: This is the litmus test for whether your organization really meant it about wanting to improve gender balance.  You risk unleashing a tsunami of cynicism if you ditch your inclusion initiatives the moment the going gets tough.  If you said it was business-critical, but are now reaching for the chop, you’ll be judged for shallow lip service – as if you’ve proven you didn’t ever want to walk your talk.

  • You invested all this money. Side-lining your initiatives now is highly likely to send you exponentially backward, a wrenching waste of time, energy, and investment.
  • It’s not just money. Your hard-fought brand reputation risks losing credibility.

Misguided: “It’s not exactly the time to go on about improving gender balance, is it?!”

On a Mission: Yes, it is. People are in the mindset of change right now, so harness it, work with it. Momentum is a precious thing. It’s unlikely you’ll have as good an opportunity to shake things up, given everything is already shaken up, in your professional lifetime. There is an unmissable opportunity to improve the way our working world operates and the mix of leaders who run it. It could finally become your legacy to future generations.

  • If you’ve never started an inclusive leadership program, whether targeting women, other under-represented workplace populations, or senior leadership team behavior, now is an excellent time to start!  It doesn’t have to be big and expensive.

Misguided: “We’re all in it together.”

On a Mission: We’re not. Some ‘types’ of employee are likely to be far worse hit than others. Tailoring targeted leadership development to key talent segments will shore up your pipeline and result in a better workplace for all, in the long term.

  • Be aware of the disproportionate pain experienced by different groups.
  • With many of us now at home 24/7, women are squeezed by wanting to be perfect in all spheres. In my coaching work, I am watching out for exhaustion, or even burnout, among women trying to do it all – work, care, clean, teach, iron, work, cook, shop, and work some more. The myth that ‘we’ve all got more time now’ rings depressingly hollow for many. It is imperative to help women prioritize and stay connected to their career goals while balancing their personal commitments.

To ride the storm and be successful – especially those organizations who’ve been hardest hit – businesses need the kind of leaders who can take them forward through this. Diversity is imperative to business survival – therefore, it’s the enlightened companies, best positioned for success, that will ensure they continue to prioritize female leadership and make progress on gender diversity.

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