Prioritising female leadership right now is the sign of an enlightened business

female leaders, group of women

Article provided by Rebecca Hourston, Managing Director, Working Parent & Executive, Talking Talent

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

The concepts of ‘inclusion’ and ‘inclusive leadership’ is really being put to the test right now – and  now, more than ever, businesses must ensure that female leadership is being prioritised; that in the fight for survival, or maintaining business as usual, women aren’t being side-lined in the workplace. Here, I look at how businesses 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 be seen to single out any specific groups of people to support at the moment.”

On a Mission: Past crises indicate 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 backwards. 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 as a whole. They are being impacted differently by the Covid fallout – particularly women of colour.
  • 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 per cent of salary for low-paying positions, 20 per cent for middle tier management, and over 200 per cent for executive positions. The cost of a female position is 10-20 per cent higher.
  • There’s an argument that women bring just the type of leadership skills that these times of change need – those qualities associated with the feminine (though not just the female) such as ‘bringing the people with you’: collaboration, heart, balance, emotional intelligence. Many have noted that the countries who seem to be leading the way in their Covid response (Germany, New Zealand, Taiwan) are led by women.

Misguided: “The government’s lifted the reporting requirement on our gender pay gap for this year, and with a gazillion competing budget priorities, cutting our Women’s Leadership Development programme is an obvious quick win.”

On a Mission: This is the litmus test for whether your organisation 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 really tough.  If you’d been saying 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 anyway.

  • You’ve invested all this money. Side-lining your initiatives now is highly likely to send you exponentially backwards; a wrenching waste of time, energy and investment.
  • It’s not just money. Your hard-fought employer brand reputation risks losing credibility
  • Although completely understandable and sensible, it’s nevertheless a dangerous message to suspend gender pay gap (G.P.G.) data requirements. Forward-thinking organisations like Santander, Fujitsu and Barclay’s continue to report progress despite mandatory G.P.G. reporting being on pause for now in the UK. After all, the requirement will return, possibly with a stronger spotlight on it than ever.

Misguided: “It’s not exactly the time to bang 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 be gifted 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 it’s run by, that could finally become your legacy to future generations.

  • If you’ve never started an inclusive leadership programme, whether targeting females, other under-represented workplace populations, or senior leadership team behaviours, now is a weirdly good 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 segments of talent 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 now, more than ever, 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 who are trying to do it all – work, care, clean, teach, iron, work, cook, shop, as well as work some more. The myth that ‘we’ve all got loads more time now’ rings depressingly hollow for many. Helping women prioritise and stay connected to their career goals, while balancing their personal commitments, is preciously important.

To ride the storm and be successful – especially those organisations 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 prioritise female leadership and make progress on gender diversity.

Rebecca HourstonAbout the author

Rebecca is an inspiring, highly credible, warm and dynamic Executive and Leadership Coach, Speaker and Programme Facilitator with a blue-chip Marketing background. She heads up the strategy and content for Talking Talent’s coaching programmes. She is one of the UK’s leading experts on women’s leadership development and supporting parental transitions. She has been a senior, qualified Executive Coach for 15 years and has made a difference to thousands of people through events, workshop facilitation, speaking, group and 1-1 coaching.


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