“One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.” — Jacinda Ardern (Prime Minister of New Zealand)
Women in leadership are changing the world. The rise of female leadership in communities, businesses, and political positions redefines outdated ideas of what it means to be an effective leader. Although society is making strides in addressing gender inequality, systematic challenges and age-old biases continue to impact women’s careers. For example, women have been hit the hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. Data shows that women have been more likely to be furloughed during the pandemic, have spent significantly less time working remotely, and have spent more time on unpaid household work and caretaking.
How can organisations, policymakers, and individuals join the effort to promote female leadership? First, it’s time to acknowledge that women in leadership are essential in the mission to recover from the pandemic, build strong businesses, and inspire future generations of influential world leaders.
How Has the Pandemic Impacted Women?
In 2020, the pandemic put all leaders to the test — how would they react to unforeseen change? An in-depth analysis of 360-degree assessments conducted between March and June of 2020 found that women were rated as more effective leaders through the crisis than their male counterparts. Yet, despite the overwhelmingly positive contributions by female leaders, the pandemic is disproportionately affecting women. Reports show that during the pandemic, women grappled with higher job loss, persistent pay inequality, heightened caregiving responsibilities, gender-based violence, and mental health strains.
In today’s workforce, women make up 48% of labourers. However, according to government findings, more female job holders have been furloughed (1.92 million) than male employees (1.79 million). In many cases, women who were not furloughed chose to leave their careers to prioritise housework and childcare due to a lack of support.
The responsibilities of life at home continue to impact female careers and women in leadership roles. At the start of the pandemic, many men and women moved to remote work models, and studies show that men spent an extra 13 minutes a day on unpaid housework. Despite this contribution, during the initial lockdown in March 2020, women spent 55% more time than men on unpaid childcare, and by October 2020, this percentage jumped to 99%. In total, nearly three-quarters of mothers in Britain cut working hours to provide unpaid childcare.
Organisations and government bodies must provide the necessary support to allow women to thrive at work and home. More women worldwide have occupied leadership positions and demonstrated what female leadership really looks like.
What Does Female Leadership Look Like?
Women are natural-born leaders and embody leadership qualities that drive thoughtful decision-making, motivated teams, and visionary change. Research by HBR indicates that women demonstrate essential leadership qualities. On an individual basis, women ranked higher in nearly every category of leadership effectiveness, resulting in better performance overall. According to the review, 19 core capabilities contribute to excellence in leadership, and women ranked higher than men in 17 of the 19 areas. Women scored exceptionally high in the following top leadership capabilities.
1. Women Take Initiative
HBR’s research survey found that women are more likely than men to take initiative in leadership positions. Taking initiative is the ability to decide and act independently without waiting for outside direction. The female initiative is evident in current enrollment rates for higher education. In 2020, more women (56.6%) than men (44.1%) participated in higher education in the UK. Women who invest in their education demonstrate a hunger for growth and develop skills to become better leaders.
2. Women in Leadership Are Resilient
Resilience involves one’s ability to withstand or recover quickly from challenging situations. In an organisational setting, female leaders are typically more relational, inclusive, and communal. During the pandemic, reports show that a relational leadership style was preferable over an autocratic command-and-control style when responding to crises. Female-led countries like New Zealand, Germany, Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, and Taiwan demonstrated incredible resilience and responsiveness during the pandemic’s public health efforts.
3. Women in Leadership Prioritise Self-Development
Self-development is a lifelong process that includes physical, emotional, educational, intellectual, and vocational growth. The HBR study reports that women scored in the 54.8 percentile for self-development efforts compared to 49.6% of men. Renowned author and Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD, coined the term “growth mindset” to explain the importance of self-development for individual success. Dweck’s research has shown that students who believe they can improve their intellectual abilities (growth mindset) work harder and perform better than those who think their abilities are a fixed trait (fixed mindset). Women in leadership roles employ a growth mindset to learn more, stay curious, acquire new skills, and constantly engage in self-development.
4. Women in Leadership Drive Results
Women executives not only prove to be driven, resilient, and self-motivated, they also drive impressive business results. Research shows that companies with more female executives are correlated with bigger share price gains, stronger revenue growth, and higher profits. For example, Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of Youtube, is one of the world’s highest-performing female CEOs. Wojcicki was Google’s 16th employee and marketing manager before she proposed Google’s purchase of YouTube and spearheaded its acquisition for US$1.65 billion in 2006. Wojcicki’s insight and strategic direction was integral in Youtube’s beginnings and continues to support the success of one of the largest search platforms in existence.
5. Women in Leadership Demonstrate Integrity and Honesty
In 2021, Fortune named Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, the World’s Greatest Leader. Ardern was met with many challenges, from a destabilising terrorist attack and deadly volcanic eruption to a global pandemic. Ardern demonstrated impressive transparency and honesty with every challenge she faced. In response to the pandemic, Ardern quickly closed borders to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and took a six-month, 20% pay cut to show solidarity with people who had lost their livelihoods. The people of New Zealand responded to Ardern’s policies with overwhelming support — a Research Poll showed the popularity of Ardern’s Labour Party rose to 60.9%, the highest it has been in the poll’s history. Ardern embodies integrity and honesty and highlights that women in leadership roles can be both vulnerable and strong.
How Can We Empower Women to Occupy Leadership Roles?
As women step onto the global stage and occupy positions of power, female leaders continue to battle sexism, unconscious gender bias, and distrust. The UK government developed a case for action to promote female leadership, including regulations, incentives, support networks, targets, and more. Although this is a crucial step, organisations can enact the following steps to support female leadership.
Fund Skilling & Training for Women
Education is an essential pillar of professional development. Companies that commit to promoting women in leadership must allocate time and funds to support women’s higher education and training programmes. Organisations can offer access to online Master’s or DBA programmes to help women attain practical knowledge and recognised credentials that further their careers.
Actively Recruit More Women
HR teams are uniquely positioned to further the recruitment of women in the workplace. HR leaders must create organisational targets that require gender-balanced teams and hire and promote with female leadership in mind. Companies should also schedule regular employment reviews to identify gender inequalities or existing pay disparities and create an action plan to resolve these issues internally.
Create a Female-Friendly Work Environment
Beware of perpetuating “the boy’s club” mentality at work. Instead, organisations must promote inclusive language, respectful communication, and support systems that build a female-friendly environment. A major challenge for women at work is the need to balance caregiving and career responsibilities. One action organisations can take to support a female-friendly work environment is offering flexible work and family support options for work-life balance.
Start Women in Leadership Mentorship Programs
Female leadership is inspiring for other women. Women in leadership positions are excellent mentors for their direct team and women outside of the organisation. Organisations like Women & Leadership International host events dedicated to female connection, development, and empowerment. Female leaders must get involved with international platforms to tell their stories and share helpful advice to encourage the next generation of female leaders.
“In my experience, women make good leaders because of their resilience, because they are good at dealing with more than one thing at a time, and communication is important to them. The best female leaders are like the best female role models, they are conscientious, they lead by example and they are highly empathetic.
To end I would add, this is not a zero-sum game, we need both great male and female role models. Diversity of thought and experience bring better, more profitable, more sustainable and healthier organisations. So we need more great female managers to aspire to join our ranks.”
Professor Helen E Higson OBE DL, Provost and Deputy Vice Chancellor, Aston University
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