I think most people would agree that this past year has been one of the longest and hardest of their life, but at the same time, it’s hard to believe we have been living through this pandemic for a year. There is much to be grateful for – I feel so lucky to have had so much more time with my family than I otherwise would have, and I am so thankful that we have remained healthy and happy. Every year on International Women's Day, I reflect on how far women have come in the workforce compared to my mother’s generation, and where I hoped we would be by the time my children enter the workplace. And while I remain optimistic about gender equality in their time, the pandemic has set back a decade of progress toward women achieving gender parity in the workplace.
Despite considerable progress, the gap in gender parity in C-suite roles is still wide
Despite the longstanding business case for achieving gender parity in executive roles, and despite the considerable gains that have been made in recent years, in 2020 women still accounted for less than 7% of CEOs at the companies on Fortune’s 500 companies, and less than a third of their board positions. Even more troubling, the gender gap is seen at all levels of leadership, not just within C-suite positions, and across all types of industries. One study showed that across each of the 12 industries, women represent fewer than 50% of leadership roles. In certain industries like energy, mining, manufacturing, and IT the representation of females in leadership roles was considerably lower.
There is no question that this pandemic has been challenging for everyone at every stage of life. But over the past twelve months, the burden of unpaid childcare prompted by school closures has disproportionately impacted mothers at all levels of the corporate ladder, around the globe. According to a McKinsey report, women make up 39% of the global workforce force but accounted for 54% of Covid-related job losses. And while I personally have been privileged enough to not have to choose between my job and caring for my kids, I'm acutely aware that millions of women around the world have not been afforded that luxury.
I do believe that COVID has humanized organizations and the way we work – out of necessity, colleagues and clients have virtually welcomed me into their homes and given me insight into their lives I otherwise wouldn’t have gleaned. It is now perfectly normal to hear dogs barking in the background, or for one or both of my kids to jump on my lap mid-zoom. And while working from home does have its benefits, for many it has also significantly blurred the line between work and personal time. Further, a recent report by the Harvard Business Review found that when working from home, women are likelier to carry out more domestic responsibilities while working flexibly, whereas men are more likely to prioritize and grow their careers which may further contribute to the gap that currently exists.
The global health crisis has fundamentally shifted priorities in leadership core competencies, and this is good news for gender parity.
In my role as an executive search specialist, I have observed significant shifts in the most sought-after leadership competencies as a result of this pandemic. In both June and December of 2020, Bedford Group Transearch surveyed top Canadian HR leaders, gaining valuable insight on how they were seeing their respective organizations change in the face of the crisis and what the lasting impacts might be. The results were fascinating - HR leaders agreed that empathy, resilience and agility would be the most critical leadership competencies in 2021, but interestingly, 55% of those who responded stated that they would not have chosen those competencies as priorities prior to the pandemic.
The good news for gender equality is that research indicates that these shifts in leadership competencies bode well for women: A report by the Pew Research Centre found that female executives are viewed by those who work with them as leading with greater compassion and empathy than their male counterparts. Further, a recent report by the Harvard Business Review suggests that throughout the crisis, employees with female leaders reported higher levels of engagement versus those led by males. According to the data, female leaders outwardly expressed more empathy – showing awareness of the fears that their teams might be experiencing, and concern and understanding for the for stress, anxiety, and frustration being felt by their peers and direct reports.
Three actions business leaders can take now to set themselves up for future success
There is still a great deal of work to be done to not only make up for the setbacks incurred as a result of this pandemic, but to bring us closer to the ultimate goal of gender equality at all levels of the corporate ladder, but especially in executive positions. Today we celebrate International Women’s Day, and this year’s theme – ‘Choose to Challenge’ has led me to think about what I am doing and the advice I give to clients in order to help bridge the gap. Here are my top recommendations for my clients:
1) Evaluate the unconscious biases that may persist throughout your organization, and create a plan to address them:
Personally and professionally, I believe in practicing what I preach and that you can’t address what you aren’t aware of. Believing we were due for a refresher, I coordinated a training session for the Bedford team on unconscious bias and since I have recommended that clients do the same. In addition to allowing me to reacquaint myself with my personal biases, one major takeaway for me was the need for individuals to evolve from applying the ‘golden rule’ to the ‘platinum rule’ – it is no longer enough to treat others as you would like to be treated. In order for people and organizations to truly value diversity, equity and inclusion, they must treat others as that individual would like to be treated.
2) Create an explicit strategy to close the gender gap, starting with C-suite and board positions:
Another recommendation I have made to clients is to develop an explicit strategy to close the executive gender gap within their organization. There are varied explanations as to why achieving gender parity in critical leadership roles is difficult - from unconscious interview biases to talent pool shortage to flawed talent strategies. But the pandemic has made it abundantly clear that in order to achieve gender parity, companies need to develop an explicit strategy. This is something Bedford Group Transearch has been able to help a number of our clients with, and I derive great joy from seeing the progress they make as a result.
3) Create a plan to prioritize and evaluate core competencies for critical roles:
Finally, I believe organizations need to create a plan for how they want to prioritize and evaluate core competencies for critical roles, and then hold themselves accountable in all areas of talent management from executives search processes to annual reviews. Most companies want a culture that celebrates diversity, equity and inclusion – not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it creates a foundation for success. But having the intent, for example, to prioritize “compassion and empathy” when picking leaders is different than having a strategy on how to do it. This is where I come in: at Bedford, this means looking for the right individuals, not the best individuals. This means assessing potential leaders against multiple dimensions of fit, including culture, leadership, performance and team, and often requires evaluation beyond resume screening and interviewing. This is something I am passionate about so I am grateful to have a job where I can help my clients achieve this everyday.
So, while the pandemic has resulted in set-backs, all hope is not lost. COVID has humanized work, and as a result, I truly believe the workplace is a more understanding and empathetic place. From Bedford’s HR leaders survey we learned that 85% of HR leaders believe there will be a return to the workplace using a hybrid model of working both in office and from home, which will hopefully provide flexibility that will be an equalizer for women. Core leadership competencies that are sought after today are proven strengths for women. Research continues to come forward further supporting the case for gender parity and organizations are taking action and setting public gender equality goals in order to be held accountable.
Despite the pandemic, the challenges it has brought and the extra work we will have to do to make up for the past year’s set-backs, I continue to believe our society is heading in the direction where, by the time my kids are old enough to read this, the need for gender equality won’t be a topic of discussion, because it will be the norm.
About Bedford Group Transearch
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