In recent years we have seen a growing stream of research and media interest in the ascendancy of women’s leadership in organizations. In multiple papers and publications, we have seen affirmation of the positive qualities and capabilities that women are bringing to the workplace in general and to leadership in particular. Further that these qualities are now strongly correlated with higher levels of business performance at a range of levels.
Here are some notable examples:
- In 2019 Harvard Business Review (HBR) published research showing that women were rated more highly than men on the vast majority of leadership competencies.
- In 2020 HBR again reported that women were perceived as being more able to lead in a crisis
- In 2020 the Financial Times reported that hedge funds run by women had outperformed those run by men during the pandemic
- In 2020 Brand Finance reported that multiple studies showed the qualities often attributed to women (and which are typically labeled as ‘feminine qualities’ of leadership) were both correlated with better performance and perceived to be more desirable qualities of leadership.
- Forbes has published a series of articles confirming that organizations led by women (with female CEOs and Directors) outperform those lead by men on multiple measures- targets, bottom line, retention, and engagement.
The data it would seem is conclusive and one could argue that the case for embracing women’s participation in the workforce and promoting them to top-level roles is firmly made. Perhaps we might also conclude that the arguments for organizational investment in career development specifically for women no longer carry the same weight and urgency. Women can relax - they’ve made it!
Sadly, as we know, this is not the whole picture. In spite of the body of evidence in favor of women having much more prominence in organizations at all levels, progress lags behind. Women still make up only 1 in 5 C suite appointments, women of color an even smaller proportion. Furthermore, recent research suggests that the pandemic threatens to undermine the place of women in the workplace and reverse decades of progress.
A recent McKinsey report (September 2020) highlights a ‘new urgency and new risks’ to achieving the economic benefits of gender parity. The report cites that in terms of world averages progress has been marginal on many indicators of gender equity including labor market participation, formal employment, and leadership roles. The slow movement toward women having prominence at senior levels is also a global phenomenon.
There are many layers to unlocking the challenge of gender parity at senior levels in organizations and no single or simple answer. The challenges involved also tend to be paradoxical in nature and therefore harder to unravel. We know that there is a ‘double bind’ that affects women in ways that do not impact men seeking promotion in the same way (‘can she be tough enough – is she too tough to be likable’ being one well-rehearsed example). Recent research on how women use power also shows that the very qualities that people value about women’s leadership such as their inclination to focus on engaging and enabling others, may also contribute to them seeming less ‘visible’. That’s a double bind if ever there was one.
Further, the pandemic is widely acknowledged to have set women back as they pick up more of the homeschooling, caring, and household work. On the positive side, we are hearing clients say that during the pandemic they have flexed their employment practices more creatively and successfully than they thought possible. They also report that this is now seen as a new normal – a practice they will continue to offer beyond the pandemic which they believe will have long-term benefits for gender equity at work.
There remains much to do if we are serious about gender equity at work and, no simple answers. We have much to learn about the full realities of women’s lives which go way beyond gender and about our constructs of leadership and how they help and hinder different groups from fulfilling their potential at work.
This is an urgent task. The loss to global and local economies from failing to grasp these challenges is too great a risk to be taken lightly. The pandemic offers us a point in history where we can renew and reset our mindset and practices – we ignore this opportunity at our peril.
Judith Parsons is a member of the faculty at Ashridge, specializing in leadership, organizational development, and change. At Hult Ashridge, she is proud to work with both aspiring and established women leaders with a particular interest in how women step up to leadership and the choices they make to define their unique sense of purpose and presence.