A divisive headline perhaps but in my opinion a truth, and one whose drum needs to be banged day in day out to ensure equality and greater representation of women in leadership roles. Twenty five years into my career, and highly depressingly, we’re not seeing enough progress despite context from the pandemic when many women leaders were knocking it out of the park compared with their male peers, and by the way, who seem to know when to step down with dignity in the cases of both Ardern and Sturgeon.
Much has been written about women leading more effectively in times of crises. Outcomes related to Covid in countries led by women were less severe, there were fewer cases. HBR’s Extraordinary Leaders Assessment rates women significantly more positively than men in 13 out of 19 competencies namely due to ability to inspire, motivate, communicate powerfully, collaborate and build relationships.
What’s holding things back? Many, many things but let’s keep it simple and focus on two things that are achievable as business leaders in the here and now.
Today’s businesses, and equally employees, need and want leaders with traits more often displayed traditionally by women. However, traits such as empathy, compassion and kindness are still perceived as soft and therefore secondary. However, what the HBR assessment outlines is that female CEOs also illustrate greater adaptability, rigour and diversity, and more frequently than their male peers. Leaders who are able to pivot and learn new skills, who emphasise employee development particularly when times are tough, who display honesty and integrity, and who are sensitive and understanding of the stress, anxiety, and frustration that people are feeling, have shifted from being ‘soft’ leadership behaviours but critical to delivering business success – and never more than now given permacrises is normality.
Let’s take a look at the ‘traditional female trait’ of empathy. Empathy is a force for productivity, for life-work integration, and positive work experiences. Empathy boosts productivity! Employees with empathetic managers and leaders are more innovative and engaged in their work than are employees who aren’t human-first. Empathy leads to rigour and there’s nothing ‘soft’ about rigour.
So, action 1: Women in business, from entry level up to CEO, need to lean in even further to drive change across the landscape of work. Don’t be quiet and think things will change by themselves. If the business you run or company you work for is run by a woman or women, use it as a differentiator. One of my male team members told me recently that they joined because of the company’s female values. While a differentiator now, let’s normalise it by broadcasting its benefits. I’ve spent a lot of time on levelling the senior playing field in my business with my board now representing 83% women and with no pay gap, which I still have to sadly point out. Our business in London has never been in better shape in its 50 year history evidenced by financial growth, best place to work accolades and because talent join for female values, which has only just be pointed out to me.
Action 2: #EmbraceEquity, the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day aims to get the world talking about why equal opportunities aren’t enough. Everyone starts from different places, so true inclusion and belonging require equitable action. This means being flexible with how we work, when we work, where we work. It means building learning and development programmes that are bespoke with tighter infrastructure to enable everyone to see over the same height of fence. Creating benefits that cover women’s life-stages from fertility treatment and time for pregnancy loss, to flexi working to enable school collection, menopause support and job design. It’s about helping returning parents and being given time to adapt and make it work through partnership and conversation.
So, while my intention is not to say that the future of leadership is not male too, to generate greater, diverse, female representation we have to be consistent and persistent in using our platforms, speaking out and embracing equity as we go.