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Woman leader

Sustainability

Post-COVID, companies need to prioritize retaining and promoting women leaders

Published 4 August 2022 in Sustainability • 5 min read

The pandemic has set back efforts to increase gender equality and women’s progression in the workplace. Taking meaningful action to prioritize work/life balance and increasing efforts to remove unconscious biases around women’s leadership will help companies get back on track, says Sara Gay, Head of Group Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Unicredit.

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed tens of millions of women out of the workforce and impacted their career ambitions and leadership progression. This is not only damaging for gender equality in the workplace, but can negatively impact the performance of companies.

Almost 60% of women working in hybrid models (arrangements that include any combination of remote and in-office work) report they have already felt excluded, according to Deloitte Global’s [email protected] 2022 report. The research showed that the pandemic was having a detrimental impact on women’s lives and careers, in particular their work/life balance and wellbeing. Many worry that their career progression will be affected if they are not constantly available.

Companionate woman leader
“Employees who work for women leaders are often more engaged and productive, and a recent study by McKinsey found women scored higher for providing emotional support”

Meaningful action can prevent women from opting out

The good news is that it’s still possible for organizations to make sustained and meaningful progress on gender equality at work.

The turmoil brought about by the pandemic has increased the desire among employees for a more empathetic leadership, with workers increasingly looking for organizations which prioritize their wellbeing. Research shows women demonstrate higher levels compassion than men, meaning employees who work for women leaders are often more engaged and productive, and a recent study by McKinsey found women scored higher for providing emotional support, such as checking in on overall wellbeing, helping to navigate work/life challenges, managing their employees’ workloads, and taking actions to prevent burnout.

Keeping women in the workforce, therefore, and helping them progress to leadership roles represents a huge opportunity to improve company performance. But sustained change will only come when women experience truly inclusive workplaces – whether virtual or in-person – where statements on the importance of gender equality are backed up by meaningful actions, goals are set, and progress is measured.

Women who work for companies that provide an inclusive work culture where women feel supported by their employers to maintain a healthy work/life balance and sustained career development ­report better mental wellbeing, motivation and productivity, and are more loyal to their employers. Notably, they are far more likely to stay with their current employers for longer than two years.

At the banking group UniCredit, where I am Head of Group Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, we are committed to supporting our colleagues in their daily personal, family, and professional challenges; flexibility, wellbeing and caring for our people play a crucial role in our DE&I and Welfare strategy.

This is why, in 2020, we launched the Family Board to support individual and family needs stemming from COVID-19 with concrete initiatives on flexibility, management of remote teams, support for home schooling, and work/life balance, and in 2021, we went on to define a group-wide minimum standard for parental leave offering mothers at least 16 weeks, and fathers four weeks, of paid leave, which contributes to a more inclusive workplace by enabling career continuity and a healthy work/life balance for both parents.

Other policies to shift the bias of caring responsibilities include upgrading and strengthening the flexible working model and focusing on a wider definition of a caregiver. In addition, we launched several dedicated leadership and development programs across the organization to enable our people to further develop an inclusive and supporting culture and to empower our most promising colleagues, enhancing their leadership capabilities and maximizing their career progression.

“Women who work for companies that provide an inclusive work culture where women feel supported by their employers to maintain a healthy work/life balance and sustained career development ­report better mental wellbeing, motivation and productivity, and are more loyal to their employers”

Overcoming gendered norms

Aside from the challenges that push women out of the workforce, a wealth of research shows that female leaders face the unique expectation of being “nice”. The problem is that kindness and compassion are often seen not only as feminine qualities, but also incompatible with, say, efficiency or technical ability. Alleviating this double bind requires changing our deeply embedded societal expectations for what it means to be a woman – and what it takes to lead. However, until we get there, women still must navigate the many tensions that come with leading.

It’s important to go beyond the consideration of gender differences to focus on the way these differences can positively influence the organizational performance. At UniCredit, we aim to achieve gender parity in leadership and managerial roles and promote development initiatives for our leaders to ensure inclusive leadership styles regardless of gender. This means enabling leaders to access training in areas that challenge these stereotypes.

A new type of leadership

Changing societal expectations and biases takes time, meaning that women leaders are often expected to balance being warm and pleasant with competent and authoritative. The best leaders read the context and decide how to handle each situation accordingly, and leaders who are truly flexible and continuously adapt will thrive. By building trust with colleagues, teams are more likely to understand that leaders can be authoritative without labelling them ‘demanding’, and compassionate without being seen as ‘a soft touch’.

The good news for women leaders is that the pandemic has increased demand for kind and caring managers who are empathetic and have strong enough emotional and social intelligence to understand their teams and what matters to them. Employees want a more human employment value proposition, and for leaders to recognize their value on a human level. Monetary compensation is important, of course, but having those deeper relationships fosters a strong sense of community and purpose-driven work which is essential for workplaces to thrive.

Managers will need to understand the personalities they work with and create a psychologically safe environment which empowers each individual and encourages them to speak up and voice individual opinions and ideas. Against this backdrop, I believe agility and adaptability – and, most importantly, empathy and caring – will be the leadership skills that will be crucial for a post-pandemic world. Retaining and promoting women leaders will therefore be an important step in creating a much more engaged workforce of the future.

Authors

Sara Gay

Sara Gay

Head of Group Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Unicredit

Sara Gay is Head of Group Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Unicredit. She has worked for more than two decades in banking in major European financial institutions, developing a career from investment banking to human capital and leadership development.

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