A business imperative: More women in leadership

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Confident businesswoman in conference room Setback or springboard? COVID-19 has had both negative and positive impacts on women’s careers. One thing remains clear — more women in leadership is a business imperative. And women’s leadership skills have emerged as essential in this time of crisis.

Grant Thornton International Ltd’s Women in Business Report 2021: A window of opportunity delves into the ways the pandemic has impacted women in business leadership. Women are notably progressing in senior management roles even as they have struggled, more than ever during the pandemic, to fulfill caretaking roles at home.

The pandemic has driven virtual working, which is providing the flexibility and time savings that make a day job more manageable. But it is also driving many women out of the workplace as personal life demands have risen exponentially, with schooldays and childcare now taking place at home, and elders needing unprecedented assistance. For many, the pull of these needs has led to vacating their positions.

The report addresses the dichotomy. It spotlights a global increase in the proportion of senior female managers, which at 31%, up from 29% in 2020, has surpassed the 30% tipping point needed to catalyze significant change. On the other hand, it points to the proportion of mothers becoming unemployed during COVID-19 as significantly higher than that of fathers.

icons women 9 of 10 businesses worldwide now have at least one woman on the leadership team. Evidence shows that women are benefiting from the shaping of a more diverse and inclusive leadership model. Some of the credit, the report says, is due to a character attribute newly recognized for its business value.

Empathy: A new priority in leadership Of respondents to a Grant Thornton International Ltd (GTIL) survey, 22% felt that empathy was flagged as vital — not just important — in leaders today. Empathy is a core attribute that wasn’t even mentioned in our previous research responses. The impacts of COVID-19 have shown the values of connection, compassion and understanding. “COVID-19 has changed the relationship between employers and employees, between managers and staff,” said Kim Schmidt, GTIL global leader of Leadership, People and Culture. “What was previously called out as soft, or not having a commercial focus, or displaying an unwillingness to make hard decisions, is now being recognized as a different type of strength.”

icons empathy 22% of survey respondents felt that empathy was vital in leaders today. “[COVID-19] has shone a light on the skill set traditionally perceived as more ‘female’ than ‘male,’” said Francesca Lagerberg, GTIL global leader of Network Capabilities. “The need to have more empathy in the current environment has been huge.”

Taylor Joy“Being an empathetic leader is about how you listen and act. Everyone has that quality within them, but for various reasons, women may be perceived to have had more practice.” Joy Taylor
National Managing Principal
Operational and Organizational Transformation
Grant Thornton US
Results point to the business imperative to embrace and reward a wider range of leadership qualities than has been the tradition. “Businesses need to consciously look at the positive shifts that have occurred around diversity, inclusion and women in leadership, and lock those in,” said Schmidt. “The more flexibility they provide in how people do in their jobs, the more engagement they’ll get, and the more attractive they’ll to be as employers.”

The report highlights actions for businesses to take for parity:

  • To realize the productivity and staff retention benefits of flexible working, empower employees in a culture led by collaborative and progressive role models.
  • Plan comprehensively for workflows that include flex-time, compressed or annualized hours, career breaks, job sharing, reduced or part-time hours, staggered start and finish times, and continued work-from-home.
  • Nurture an environment of open communications and create platforms for submitting ideas.
  • Match rewards and recognition to your organization’s stated culture, values, policies and practices.
  • Establish gender balance at all levels, providing every qualified candidate with access to information about the opportunity.

COVID-19-caused gaps in leadership and leadership development The pandemic has shortchanged the career progression of a large segment of working women, said Joy Taylor, Grant Thornton US national managing principal of Operational and Organizational Transformation. “Women in their early 20’s are having far different work experiences from anyone else in the history of working,” Taylor pointed out. After no physical presence with colleagues in the first or one of the first years of their career, she said, they’re missing some foundational skills and critical components of leadership development. “When you’re not in the same room with leaders, there’s a lot lost — modeling, mentoring, nonverbal cues. We’re going to have to find a way to fill that gap of team-based learning.”

Investing, mentoring and advocating will pay off Throughout and beyond the pandemic-enforced remote working environment, Taylor stressed the need for women leaders to consciously model behavior to be emulated by other women, especially younger women. “They need to ‘see themselves’ at higher levels. In addition, she said, “We must invest in women learning the business of the business. Make sure they understand terms and processes, and how to have an educated answer about business decisions to ready them for high-level meetings.”

Taylor is encouraged about the future for women in business leadership. “The fact that we continue to talk about it, that it’s a topic on our agendas, that we are measuring and sharing data, we are making progress. I believe this is everyone’s responsibility.”

For more on the outlook for women leaders in business, read Women in Business Report 2021: A window of opportunity.


Taylor Joy Joy Taylor
National Managing Principal
Operational and Organizational Transformation
Grant Thornton US
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