What the Pandemic Taught Us About Diverse Leadership

How COVID-19 spotlighted the strengths of women leaders and the urgent need for gender equality and diverse leadership in business.

When COVID-19 turned our world upside down, it taught us some eye-opening lessons about diverse leadership. The pandemic held a mirror up to some of the outdated gender perceptions that still lurk in the corners of the corporate world. However, ultimately, it showed us the real, tangible value of women leaders in a crisis, and we think there’s some wisdom to be drawn from the lessons we learnt.

While the world flailed in crisis, women leaders like New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Germany’s Angela Merkel stood out for their empathy, clear communication, and collaborative decision-making. These ‘softer’ skills translated into the corporate world, too, as companies led by women saw higher levels of employee satisfaction and better overall performance.

It soon became clear that the compassionate and inclusive leadership styles of many women were exactly what was needed to navigate the crisis.

Yet women still emerged from the pandemic worse off in lots of ways. It seems that diversity was pushed onto the back burner, and some long-standing inequalities in the workplace began to resurface.

According to some studies, women took on 29% more childcare responsibilities per week than men during the pandemic.

The Covid Effect

According to a report by McKinsey, it was women who were disproportionately affected by job losses, particularly in sectors like retail, hospitality, and education, where they represent the majority of the workforce. Meanwhile, a UN Women’s report revealed the burden of unpaid domestic responsibilities increased during lockdown, as remote work blurred the lines between professional and personal life. That was just the tip of the iceberg. These reports, and many more like them, reveal the plethora of ways the pandemic affected women’s careers, whereas men’s were left largely unscathed.

How the Pandemic Impacted Women

The Economic Strain
The economic fallout of the pandemic hit women the world over particularly hard. Women in leadership positions were not immune to these impacts. The study by McKinsey revealed that one in four women were considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers due to increased demands at home and work stress. This disparity was particularly stark among working mothers and women in senior management positions, who were suddenly handed the responsibility for homeschooling on top of everything else.

Increased Microaggressions and Burnout
The pandemic exacerbated workplace microaggressions, and burnout became rife among working women, especially women of color. McKinsey reported that women experiencing microaggressions were three times more likely to consider quitting their jobs and four times more likely to exist in a perpetual state of burnout. Imagine what it’s like to live your most stressful day on repeat. What’s more, this stressful environment made it even more challenging for women to push ahead and continue their career trajectories.

The Work-From-Home Juggle
Remote work became the new normal for many, offering a mix of benefits and challenges. While some women appreciated the flexibility, the lines between work and home life blurred, increasing the unpaid domestic load that women largely bore. According to some studies, women took on 29% more childcare responsibilities per week than men during the pandemic.  Picture a scenario where a woman is trying to manage her job from home while also overseeing her children’s remote schooling and handling household chores, cooking, grocery shopping … it’s unsustainable. It wasn’t like this in all households, but for some, this overload saw women’s careers falling to the bottom of the priority list. We’re painting a bleak picture here, but it isn’t all bad. Where the pandemic negatively impacted women’s careers, it also shone a light on the places where there was room for improvement.

Rethinking Corporate Policies
Businesses that actively addressed gender disparities rose to the top during the crisis. It was the companies implementing flexible working hours and providing mental health support for their employees that saw higher retention rates and productivity. This inspired many organizations to follow suit and rethink their practices – those practices developed in lockdown have helped many organizations thrive and increase their diverse leadership. Conversely, those that didn’t adapt their policies to support women at all during the pandemic saw higher turnover rates and lower employee morale.

Impact on Career Progression and Visibility
With the shift to remote work, women faced reduced visibility and networking opportunities. This caused all remote workers to miss out on the informal networking and mentorship opportunities that happen in office settings. However, this particularly affected women, who already typically have less access to mentoring opportunities and rely on this visibility. This pressed a giant pause button on some women’s careers. So, what did we learn from all this?

What Did We Learn?

Women Leaders are Strong
One major takeaway from the pandemic is the undeniable value of diverse leadership. Companies that empowered their women leaders thrived. Female leaders showed empathy, clear communication, and collaboration – qualities that were crucial during such a crisis. Not only that, but organizations with gender-diverse leadership teams reported higher levels of employee satisfaction and better overall performance.

Changing Perceptions
There has been a shift in how we perceive gender roles in business since the pandemic. It’s left us with a growing recognition of the valuable contributions women leaders make, especially in times of crisis.

If we weren’t convinced before, now we know that companies with diverse leadership teams are better equipped to handle crises, nurture innovation, and achieve sustainable growth. 

So, how can we keep momentum going on this important realization?

What Can Your Organization Do?

1 – Promote Flexible Work Arrangements: Implement flexible work policies that support work-life balance. Think remote work options, flexible hours, and robust support for employees juggling caregiving responsibilities.

2 – Strengthen Support Systems: Develop and enhance support systems for women in the workplace. This includes mentorship programs, networking opportunities, and resources for professional development.

3 – Implement Comprehensive Gender-Sensitive Policies: Create policies that directly address gender disparities. Focus on reducing economic inequalities, supporting unpaid care work, and promoting women’s access to leadership roles.

4 – Foster an Inclusive Culture: Build a workplace culture that values diversity and inclusion. Encourage open dialogue, provide diversity training, and ensure all employees feel respected and valued.

5 – Measure and Report Progress: Track and report on gender diversity metrics. Use data to identify areas for improvement and hold the organization accountable for its diversity goals.

As we move forward, the lessons from the pandemic are clear. Women have shown resilience, empathy, and strong leadership skills that have been crucial during these times. Now, it’s up to businesses to take these lessons and implement changes that support and empower women at all levels.

Let’s create workplaces where diversity thrives and where every leader, regardless of gender, can shine.

The future is inclusive, and it starts with the steps we take today.

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