Research & Thought Leadership

Valuing women’s leadership

Dr. Carina Paine Schofield & Dr. Debbie Bayntun-Lees

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Valuing Womens Leadership

Over the past 18 months, we have experienced powerful lessons as female leadership styles using collaboration, empathy, and humility have emerged in coordinating effective responses to the pandemic in political, corporate, public sector, and other contexts.

Employees are now placing greater importance on relational skills and emphasizing abilities to ‘inspire’ and ‘engage’, ‘build trust’ and ‘collaborate’. They are also valuing women leaders for their awareness of stress and frustration, concern for wellbeing, and emphasis on development, even when times are tough.

The abilities and achievements of women during this challenging time may also inspire us to imagine a new vision of what strong leadership looks like, and how gender balance and equity in our organizations can be realized. Learning from leaders during a crisis can help us build back better for the future.

The Research

Our research project, ‘Female Leaders during a Global Crisis’, looks at how senior women experienced and transitioned through the COVID-19 pandemic and at the skills and qualities demanded of them during this difficult time. This research was carried out in partnership with Ruter Dam.

Approximately 40 senior women leaders from the Ruter Dam network took part in group inquiry conversations to understand how they experienced work during the pandemic crisis, and the range of challenges they are currently facing as we move forward into a very different world.

This is important research at a time of continuing uncertainty in the global workplace. The findings give a fascinating insight into the challenges faced by women leaders during the height of the crisis, and how they see the opportunities and demands facing them as we move into the future. Some of the key findings from the research are summarized below.

Looking backwards

The leaders were acutely aware of their learning and evolving adaptation as new challenges emerged throughout the crisis. The words the women used to describe their experiences, perspectives and transitions over this time are shown below:

Figure: We asked senior women leaders, "What have been your experiences, perspectives and transitions over the pandemic?"

Ruter Dam Report Looking Backwards

Looking forwards

The future world of work remains uncertain. The main concern of the women we spoke to was paving the way forward - preparing and planning for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. The words women leaders used to describe these challenges and opportunities are shown in the following.

Figure: We asked senior women leaders, "What challenges are you facing as you look to the future world of work?"

Ruter Dam Report Looking Forwards

Amplifying and accessing feminine qualities and skills to lead successfully

The women leaders were extremely aware of the significant learning accomplished and the qualities evident in achieving their many successes over the last 18 months. The challenges presented demanded they access and amplify their feminine qualities and skills to respond appropriately and achieve their many successes during this time.

As organizations move forward leaders will need to step into the role of culture maker, building these skills and qualities across teams and organizations to ensure these qualities and skills are available for the benefit of everyone.

Focusing on humanity

Like many other senior women leaders, those who took part in the research exhibited a different leadership style than men during the COVID-19 crisis.

The style and skills of leadership evidenced focused on humanity and relational leadership and included:

  • Adaptability

  • Toughness

  • Compassion

  • Humility

  • Empathy

  • Determination

The women had a clear sense that these ‘essential’ qualities will continue to aid in building a more sustainable future.

Despite increasing inequalities, women have played a critical (often unrecognized) role in recovery

The research has brought into focus the experiences of women leaders involved during the pandemic crisis, the qualities they bring to leadership and their value to organizational performance. Yet this critical and invisible work often goes unrecognized and unrewarded.

The risks to women and the companies that depend on their leadership are very real. We need women leaders and what they stand for. Companies need to be proactive in addressing this as well as creating a human centric workplace for all.

Recommendations for leaders and organizations

If you are looking to develop strong leadership, regardless of gender, in your organization, the following recommendations go some way to supporting this.

  • Focus on building strong connections and relationships

    A key focus here is developing the skills for quality communication and conversation. Consider: How do we want to talk and relate together going forward? What will enable us to do our best work together? What do we need to do to make this happen?

  • Put wellbeing at the center of all you do

    Pulse check your organizations wellbeing; make plans to keep your employees happy, healthy and engaged, and; develop a listening culture.

  • Maximize opportunities for women to grow and succeed within the workplace

    Organizations must address gender bias at a systemic level and support women’s leadership development at all levels.

  • Create cultures of belonging

    Leaders need to build diverse and inclusive workforces with the mindsets, skillsets, and resources to address bias and belonging at all stages of the employee journey.

  • Continue to invest in ethical technology innovation

    Use technology and communication products to add value, and shape the world of work in ways that improve the quality of life for all.

  • Build on the positives of the pandemic

    Find ways to recognize and reward employees for strong teamwork, thinking out of the box, stepping up and doing, and contributing their difference.

    Trust, empower, and generate accountability across teams, build relational skills and qualities at all levels and ‘be the change you want to see’. Well-developed leaders create durable competitive advantage.

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