Research & Thought Leadership

Women in the Workplace: Driving gender equality

Judith Parsons

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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 of women in the workplace:

  • During 2019 Harvard Business Review (HBR) published research showing that women were rated more highly than men on the vast majority of leadership competencies

  • HBR again reported in 2020 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

  • Brand Finance reported during 2020 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, 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 uplifting tone of much of the recent research, the reality is that real progress lags behind. Women still make up only 1 in 5 C suite appointments, women of color an even smaller proportion. Further, recent research suggests that the pandemic has been a time that threatens to undermine the place women in the workplace and reverse 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 statistics that show that women continue to be disadvantaged in terms of education, health, digital inclusion, financial inclusion, and other key indicators are even more concerning.

We might well assume that if these are global figures then women in advanced economies will have it better. Undoubtedly, women in advanced economies have better access to education, the labor market, and career progression. However, according to McKinsey these ‘advantaged’ women share a much higher proportion of labor market insecurity and, are more likely to be adversely affected in role security by automation. Further, data shows that during the pandemic we have gone backward in terms of sharing the domestic burden with women picking up more of the homeschooling, caring, and household work. We hear from clients that they fear losing female talent because they see women struggling to balance work and home life and finding it too hard. Some have made progressive provisions and flexed their workplace policies to help.

Overall the evidence is that we still have a long way to go in terms of gender parity at work. It also confirms that we have to take a holistic view of women and their value in the workplace- we cannot simply move forward on getting women leaders into senior roles and not address the underlying inequalities that affect all women at work.

More and more organizations are focusing on developing effective communication across all levels to have more voices heard. Without the ability to communicate and understand one another, building inclusivity, diversity, and equality in the workforce, becomes even more challenging. This is something we simply can’t ignore.

One positive arising from the pandemic is that we have shown that creative and flexible employment practices are both possible and workable – productivity has not gone down the drain. We talk a lot about building back better and new normal. This period in history is an opportunity to reset and to really embrace what it means to have a diverse and inclusive workplace and society.

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