Women in leadership: Are we going into reverse?

08 March 2021
LeadershipEquality, Diversity and InclusionResilience
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Menai Owen-Jones writes in this blog that due to the pandemic, inequalities have been heightened – and that includes for working women. She says that we must act now to support the retention and progression of women in the workplace as otherwise the detrimental and profound impact it will have will far outlive the pandemic.

COVID-19 has shone a light on the critical role of women and women leaders in responding to the pandemic. Women from all walks of life, from community leaders through to country leaders, have offered visible powerful models of decisive, courageous, empathetic and impactful leadership.

This beacon of light has provided the opportunity to shift the outdated narrative of an effective leader, such as you cannot be a strong and also an empathetic and compassionate leader. 

Alongside this positive development however, there is a significant shadow caused by the impact of the pandemic that may affect the future progression of women in the workplace. This could cast a long-lasting shadow if we don’t take decisive action now.

Inequalities are heightened, including for working women

COVID-19 is the most shocking, traumatic and life-changing modern-day crisis. Though we are all in the same storm, we are in different boats, and our own personal experience is not ‘the’ experience. 

Inequalities that existed before are now heightened; this includes for working women. For example, we are seeing that the pandemic and its economic fallout, are having a regressive effect on gender equality, as more job losses are affecting women (because they are disproportionately represented in sectors negatively affected) and more women have been furloughed than men. The effect is even more profound on women of colour as one in ten are now out of work according to latest research.

The virus too has had a greater effect on women because the burden of unpaid care has significantly increased, which is still disproportionately carried by women. 

Time poverty and workplace progression

I know I have found it particularly difficult over the past year juggling parenting, other caring responsibilities and my roles as a CEO and also trustee.  I, like many, have had to give up opportunities, due to time poverty and countless demands.

I know of women who have given up their work due to caring responsibilities.

I know too of women who have been unable to take on extra work projects, pursue learning and development opportunities or attend networking events.  These are all important factors in supporting the progression of women in the workplace and into leadership positions and beyond. 

This is concerning at a time that we need to be doubling down efforts to advance diversity, equality and inclusion in the workplace and when we really need a diverse, talented pool of current and future leaders to create much needed systemic cultural change. 

There continues to be gender disparity, particularly at senior levels within the charity sector. For example, fundraising is a profession generally dominated by women, but women, and particularly women from minority groups, are underrepresented in senior roles.

How can we ensure that women don’t lose ground in the workplace?

For reasons of equity, inclusion and fairness, this is a time for those of us in leadership positions, such as CEOs, directors and trustees, to use our power to support individuals with caring responsibilities, who are still predominantly women, to stay in work and to continue their progression in the workplace.  

We should be proactively adopting and promoting flexible working, offering part time or job sharing opportunities where possible and progressing our ways of working as we emerge out of the pandemic, adopting blended home and office working.

As leaders we are also responsible for supporting the professional development of our staff in order to enhance their knowledge, skills and behavioural capability. Are we ensuring that everyone, whether they have caring responsibilities or not, is given sufficient work time to pursue learning and development opportunities? 

Are we ensuring that new projects and networking opportunities, are equitably shared amongst our teams and accommodations made for those with caring responsibilities, to help them access these opportunities too, so they aren’t excluded? 

If we don’t act to support the retention and progression of women in the workplace now this is highly likely to cast a long shadow, affecting the pipeline of diverse candidates going into leadership positions in the first place and the progression of women in leadership.

The detrimental and profound impact of which will far outlast the pandemic.

Menai Owen-Jones
Menai Owen-Jones
is a Chartered Director who is Chief Executive of The Pituitary Foundation
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