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Women & Womens Leadership during COVID-19

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Subha Pandian - Founder Director - AGUA Womens Leadership| Diversity & Inclusion| Self-Empowerment Coach| Re-inventing Inner Narrative

25-Jun-2020

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Companies with a woman in the chief executive or chairman role have performed far better than a major global index over the past eight years, according to an analysis by the bank Nordea of nearly 11,000 companies globally. The results, first reported by Bloomberg, found that on average, companies with a woman in either of those two top jobs at the end of the calendar year more than doubled the performance of the MSCI World Index in the following year. The annualized return for female-led firms, based on an equal weighting, was 25 percent since 2009, compared with just 11 percent for the broader market.

Across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated for women simply by virtue of their gender. This study conducted by AGUA aims at understanding Women Leaders and their persistent barriers both in society and corporations -that are impeding their progress during these unprecedented times, thereby identifying ways to support women in their leadership journey.

AGUA Women's Leadership Team performed a survey and interviewed 800+ Women Leaders and influencers, across corporations, SME organizations, as well as women in education and arts. Their responses all point in one unambiguous direction: that a new mindset and belief system is needed for making the journey from survival to sustainability, a New Normal post COVID-19.

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Survey Findings

Twenty Seven (27%) percent of women who have worked hard towards promotions and career moves in their current organizations expressed facing job cuts and pay cuts. Disparities are unleashed in this crisis - Downturns highly impact Women Leaders, and aspiring executives, putting a pause to their career trajectory.

Fifty four (54%) percent of Women Leaders surveyed confirm that they have challenges managing Work from(for) Home. The pandemic is amplifying nearly every disadvantage that women already face due to lack of support from society & corporations. Unpaid domestic chores and taxing office work is creating a less satisfied feeling as they struggle to fit multiple priorities into their compressed time, creating a disproportionate effect on Women's performance & Emotional health

Existence of a leaky pipeline that does little to retain women in the jobs necessary to get the top roles impact women more, especially in this pandemic period. Women represent 20-25% percent of middle management and professional positions, but the percentages of women at the top of organizations represent not even a third of that number (4.6% in India) - most likely a result of long-ingrained gender stereotypes. Work cultures that value face time over results, and lack of women in the boardroom who influence decisions, are taking toll on Women's Leadership journey.

Recommendations

Women are ambitious and looking for a supportive environment to succeed. Organizations should help build their level of confidence (Here confidence is defined as a perception of ones chances of success in the environment, rather than confidence in ones own qualification) Organizations adopting to these three approaches to create an inclusive environment can take advantage of the available talent pool.

Organizations are encouraged to adopt the below points

  1. Increasing opportunities for women to advance to leadership roles in the organization begins with the internal pipeline and identifying barriers and obstacles to advancement, and establishing measurable goals for building equity
  2. A leadership gender gap at any level is evidence that an organization's leadership development programs are missing something. Addressing gender-specific career derailers in leadership programs is a first step in reducing the gender gaps
  3. Building reflective organizations that are able to transform themselves into truly inclusive workplaces, taking full advantage of the significant benefits of diverse teams operating at their best.

Enabling Women Leadership

In India, the global average contribution to GDP by women is only 17 percent, as against 40-41 percent contribution by women in North America and Oceania, China, and Eastern Europe and Central Asia(Data source: Statista 2020)

Our economy needs women in leadership. Women add unique value and perspective. They shatter groupthink, improve communications dynamics, and reinvigorate companies in ways that make them more competitive. Research shows companies with a critical mass of top-team gender diversity enjoy significantly better financial performance.

If theres anything the data tells us about women in business these days, its that women are really good leaders and have all the skills they need to succeed in business. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review found that women outscored men on 12 of 16 leadership competencies. In addition, women are hard workers and results-focused.

Companies with a woman in the chief executive or chairman role have performed far better than a major global index over the past eight years, according to an analysis by the bank Nordea of nearly 11,000 companies globally. The results, first reported byBloomberg, found that on average, companies with a woman in either of those two top jobs at the end of the calendar year more than doubled the performance of the MSCI World Index in the following year. The annualized return for female-led firms, based on an equal weighting, was 25 percent since 2009, compared with just 11 percent for the broader market.

The pandemic could last for years. Embracing that reality is crucial to the next phase of pandemic response. Experts urge leaders and the public to start thinking long-term. Think-tanks, forums and the media across the globe have published a number of pieces on this subject, the very headlines of which reflect a gender-focused sensitivity.

Forbes, 19 April 2020: Why Do Women Make Such Good Leaders During COVID-19? New York Times, 15 May: Why Are Women-Led Nations Doing Better With Covid-19? Stanford Medicine (Scope), 12 May, 2020: Women Leaders shine during COVID-19 pandemic To mention only a few. The article in the World Economic Forums website, published on 03 April 2020, in collaboration with Thomson Reuters Foundation Trust.org, commencing from a demographic standpoint that 70% of the world's healthcare staff are female, also has a distinctive gender-slant: Why we need Women's leadership in the COVID-19 response.

So, where is the parity? We think that the data divides men and women . For a long time research was trying to figure out who was right, the feminists who said women were as good as men or the sexists who said we werent. That debate is over. Gone. Done. We know the answer is YES, women and men are both smart and capable, and much of the research about the differences between Women's and mens brains is over-blown.

Now it is the redefining moment! Time to move away from staggered stereotypes and legacy work cultures. When we review the plethora of research on women and business with a critical eye, we begin to see a pattern: Organizations that value women in leadership also value the softer skill sets women bring with them. The point is that business cultures that value both the soft and hard leadership skills perform better!!

When we help build cultures that do this well, well reap the benefits from women and men whove long been excluded as they are welcomed into leadership more openly. Building an inclusive work culture!

Opportunities to make a difference abound. When farsighted leaders are willing to view their responses to the pandemic through a gender-tinted lens, they have the chance to transform a massive disruption into a truly equalizing force. Organizations have the chance to show that they actually mean what they say when they wax lyrical about their companies broader purpose in society, beyond making profits. As they plan how to return to office life, there will be fresh opportunities to root out existing gender biases. For example, Flexible working hours, the ability to work from home and more malleable career paths would help to narrow the gender gap as we emerge from the pandemic and allow women to produce more than before.

A leadership gender gap at any level is evidence that your leadership development programs are missing something. One common lack is that they are not gender-neutral, because, most leadership programs are designed to address the skill gaps of men. Gender-specific career derailers aren't addressed in most leadership programs.

Benefits of having Women at Leadership Levels

1. Organizations that confront the gender gap and make efforts to appeal to and retain female talent will be better prepared to take advantage of a larger pool of emerging leaders.

2. Having a better balance of women in top leadership positions can mean a more diverse team of leaders with different perspectives and a greater ability to contribute new ideas.

3. Having both women and men in leadership roles helps organizations reflect the customers they serve, giving the perspective needed to increase sales and fuel growth.

4. Organizations that create a culture of equal opportunity and diversity are better able to attract, retain, and motivate the most qualified individuals.

Need for women-only leadership Program

The oft-overlooked benefit of women-only leadership programs is that they hold up a mirror to the organization. When women scrutinize their own leadership traits and experiences, they reveal important information about the day-to-day environment in which they operate. When a company is receptive, the content of the sessions can help gauge how well the organization promotes effective leadership behavior and can offer a portal into where the company succeeds, as well as where it fails to foster an environment in which everyone can bring their best self to work. In short, companies can use such programs not only to improve the skills of the participants but also to assessand ultimately improvethe workplace itself.

Most women we interviewed said their organization defined leadership clearly and that it was the traditional, stereotypically masculine style exemplified by the majority of their senior-most male and some female colleagues that was considered the benchmark. In many companies, the commonly held perception was that nothing else counted. A smaller number said that their organization voiced an appreciation of other leadership characteristics, such as listening and collaboration, but negated that message by promoting primarily on the basis of more traditional types of leadership behavior, such as authoritative decision making, control, and corrective action.

These dynamics are problematic for organizations, not just for women. A recent McKinsey research into the leadership behaviors that are most effective for addressing future challenges concludes that the traditional behaviors of control, corrective action, and individualistic decision making are the least critical for future success. Much more important are intellectual stimulation (which men and women apply in equal measure), and five other traits (inspiration, participative decision making, setting expectations and rewards, people development, and role modeling) applied more frequently by women

See Exhibit fromMckinsey&Company Reportbelow

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Reflective organizations are able to transform themselves into truly inclusive workplaces, taking full advantage of the significant benefits of diverse teams operating at their best. Women-only leadership programs help them get there. Those organizations and their leaders view these programs as windows into overlooked parts of the company, providing a clearer view of the pitfalls and challenges that employees face. Stronger Women Leaders emerge from these leadership programsand so do stronger companies.

Creating Gender Neutral Workplace

Our interviews with women highlighted the key levers companies can activate in order to create gender-neutral organizations and enable Women's advancement at each stage of the pipeline, up to the executive positions.

Most importantly companies need to address typical unconscious bias, in the processes as well as in the mind-sets. A comprehensive ecosystem is required to create supportive work environments for women, including CEO commitment, close monitoring of key indicators, programs for Women's leadership development and policies to neutralize the recruiting and promotion processes, while driving deep cultural change.

Although many companies we surveyed are committed to gender diversity, have launched many programs, and have evolved their processes and policies, it is yet to provide visible change and cultural transformation. Companies have implemented multiple diversity measures, but still have less women in their leadership positions (at C-level)

Building an Inclusive ecosystem

A comprehensive ecosystem is required to build inclusiveness and diversity in top management. The interventions are successful when they are adapted to address each companys unique pain points and implemented together to create an ecosystem of change over time. There are five dimensions to build a comprehensive ecosystem that will foster inclusiveness and gender diversity at all levels of an organization: CEO and management commitment and management cascade, transparency and indicator tracking, Women's leadership development, diversity-enabling infrastructure, and inclusive mind-sets and processes.

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Specific initiatives

  1. Go beyond a vocal commitment to diversity by cascading a clear business case for change.
  2. Set inclusion targets, track them consistently, share results, and hold leaders accountable to them.
  3. Create formal sponsorship networks to help women navigate promotions at their organizations.
  4. Make flexibility programs compatible with promotions. After leaves of absence, support re-integration of women through formal return-to-work and internship programs.
  5. Increase awareness of unconscious bias with formal training programs. Implement systems to de-bias recruitment, evaluation, and promotion decisions.

Looking Forward

The case for gender parity in the economy and in the workplace has never been so strong. Despite progress in some parts of the world, change is slow to happen. We need to remove those persistent barriers which exist in and outside the workplace. And we need to build the conditions and mind-sets in our societies that will lead men and women to better share the work in the house, in the economy and in the decision making. It is very clear today what the priorities and actions are. It is just a matter of doing it. In this survey report, we have put together some key factors to help us shape the vision for the truly inclusive and performing organization of the future.

We would like to express our sincere gratitude and appreciation to our inspirers and contributors, who have shared insightful perspectives as well as bold and inspiring ideas to accelerate change.