On International Women’s Day 2021, looking back at the last twelve months gives working women much to be proud of and much to be hopeful about.
Across the world, the news has been quoting concerning statistics and reporting on widespread economic uncertainty. Women in the workplace have felt under greater pressure to manage domestic and career expectations during periods of enforced lockdown. Female talent, despite all the decades of progress, has been hit hard. There has been a quantitive decline in prospects, due to the ramifications of the Coronavirus pandemic. Career driven women have always faced a steeper climb to the top, but now it seems the opportunities themselves are shrinking, as domestic priorities take over for many.
This is a loss not just for women but also potentially for the businesses they’ve unwillingly left. By looking at all the areas where women excel and make a difference, it is clear that a lack of women in the workplace will lead to a skills gap, of which a considerable proportion will be soft skills that are in short supply at management level.
According to the Minister of Economy, in the United Arab Emirates, Sultan Bin Saeed Al Mansour “The woman is the mother, the educator the engineer, the doctor, the soldier; for she is half of society and is not merely a digit, but is rather an effective and active half of a civilized society that esteems the woman, reverse the mother and respects the wife. Accordingly, we find that empowering women is not just an option but also a necessity. In this regard the country exerts its utmost effort to prepare an environment that is supportive of women, whilst also providing all the elements that enable her to play an effective role in the homeland side by side with men, given that they are partners in realizing its achievements and laying the foundation of its progress.– Jones, LeRay and Punshi, Game-Changers.
Big losses to big gains
The virus moved everyone out of the office environment overnight. Men and women in managerial positions were largely working from home. Both genders were facing the same pressure to manage their pre-pandemic workloads under lockdown working conditions. Except the managerial playing field was far from level. With childcare options either too expensive or completely unavailable, the distribution of parental responsibilities disproportionately fell to women.
This cultural default was the same the world over. The effects were worse still for single mothers, who had previously been admirably juggling motherhood and childcare.
Pressure to pay bills, sustain a family, educate children (with no skills or training to do so) has taken a resilience and selflessness that has never been called upon before. But it is these same qualities and skills that will now be in such high demand by future employers. The multitasking skills of a woman who hung onto a senior level role and managed children during lockdown will demonstrate high levels of emotional intelligence, courage and determination. Her stock price should sky-rocket, but it will instead be a slow burn while the significance permeates through to the top floor.
There needs to be more initiatives like the Dubai Airport “Aspiring Women Programme” which launched in 2017 to build on the experience and talent of a group of female managers to spend nine months preparing for the next step up the corporate ladder.
This is an area of concern for governments around the world, and many are already working on solutions and initiatives to coax women back to the careers where they can make a difference to the lives of other working women.
On 26th January 2021 Noura Khalifa Al Suwaidi, Secretary-General of the General Women’s Union (GWU), participated in a virtual consultative meeting for senior Arab officials organised by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, attended by leaders and decision-makers in the Arab region, to discuss the “UN-Women’s Strategic Plan”
“The UAE has always been keen to empower women economically, socially and politically, as well as ensure that they enjoy equality and fair opportunities in all areas of work, underscored by the adoption of the National Strategy for Empowerment of Emirati Women in the UAE 2015-2021,” Al Suwaidi said. This sends a strong message of support. But this a message that echoed the efforts internationally.
“The UAE’s foreign aid strategy aims to support and empower women and girls around the world, through the “Women’s Empowerment and Protection Policy,” she added.
It has also been refreshing to see a call for greater representation from women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) industries. UNESCO has called for new policies, initiatives and pathways to encourage women and girls into scientific fields of study. With more women now forced to consider a career change due to the corporate casualties of the pandemic (hospitality, retail, travel for example) there is a unique opportunity to tempt women into retraining in areas of study they had previously thought out of reach. According to UNESCO figures, fewer than 30 percent of researchers worldwide are women. There is a huge push globally to fix the gender gap in these sectors, and this could be advantageous to scientifically minded women looking to grow in a new direction.
Businesses must stop skirting the issue
When faced with a financial cliff edge, decision-makers are finally taking a good hard look at the flawed processes and policies that put them there. It’s in these critical moments that people look at problems from a new and radical perspective. Running a skills audit can help a business to identify where there are shortages of hard and soft skills. Having a broad and diverse boardroom of decision makers is the only way to ensure that the best ideas are raised, challenged openly and implemented after sufficient scrutiny.
“According to a study conducted by The Peterson Institute for International Economics, based on 22,000 organisations in over 90 countries, firms with 30% or higher representation of females in senior leadership, were associated with a 15% increase in their net revenue margin compared to firms with more limited gender diversity. Our own research at The Talent Enterprise indicates that GCC national women on average have higher levels of psychological strengths, such as grit, resilience, growth mindset, comfort with ambiguity, etc, amongst other attributes which promote productivity and positivity in the workplace.“
To create a workplace that nurtures an inclusive ethos, those at the decision-making level need to be good at collaboration. Success is fed by diversity; without it the “Yes Men” will be left to lead everyone over that looming cliff edge. What diversity offers a boardroom is often something as simple as a well-timed “no”. But that “no” is followed up with a” why” and a “how” because the brave but marginalised colleague (who has always had to work twice as hard to get half as much pay) knows she always has to do more than just raise objections. She knows all about strategy, timing and tenacity; it is how she finally got a seat at the table.
The motivating factor for every industry and business worldwide is profit and share price. Figures show companies that have women sitting in top positions deliver up-to 50% better than companies with all-male boardrooms. The bottom line will become the headline, and changes will be sweeping.
Diversity within equality
While women’s careers stalled due to the pandemic, the problem was shown to run much deeper than just gender. Black women are particularly struggling to overcome barriers and bias in the workplace.
“For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women were promoted—and this gap was even larger for some women: only 58 Black women and 71 Latinas were promoted. As a result, women remained significantly outnumbered in entry-level management at the beginning of 2020—they held just 38 percent of manager-level positions, while men held 62 percent”https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/women-in-the-workplace#
Any minority has to work twice as hard to be taken seriously, BAME women (WOC) are even more disadvantaged in their career by the pandemic fallout. At home, amid the domestic pressures, this causes women in management to feel unable to stop, of always having to be seen to “do more” to make up for a self-sustaining discriminatory shortfall. Being caught between a demanding boss and a demanding child, quickly leads to burn out, which is why women (WOC in particular) need support from companies to facilitate a finish time while working at home. Encouraging a work/life balance is hard for someone who has always had to fight to gain an edge.
Research carried out by the Harvard Business Review, provides evidence that women perform better in a crisis. (This is a trend that has been replicated when examining world leaders response to Covid-19). The entire report shines a light on the perceived differences between male and female leaders. In business, women are frequently surveyed as more effective leaders by their teams:
“..our data (shows) they want leaders who are able to pivot and learn new skills; who emphasize employee development even when times are tough; who display honesty and integrity; and who are sensitive and understanding of the stress, anxiety, and frustration that people are feeling. Our analysis shows that these are traits that are more often being displayed by women.”
What can be seen quite clearly, is that the above listed attributes do not have monetary “value”. When a salary is negotiated or a promotion fought for, the assessor wants to see traditional and hard skills. Soft skills until recently have been very overlooked and underpaid.
More and more international businesses are adopting emotional intelligence signifiers in their recruitment processes. These soft skills are increasingly valuable, and here women have a potential advantage.
“..senior-level women have a vast and meaningful impact on a company’s culture. They are more likely than senior-level men to embrace employee-friendly policies and programs and to champion racial and gender diversity: more than 50 percent of senior-level women say they consistently take a public stand for gender and racial equity at work, compared with about 40 percent of senior-level men.”
Recognising barriers to entry for top-level management roles is vital in redressing the balance after the havoc wreaked by the pandemic. If these dilemmas are not resolved, large pools of talent will not be returning to the workplace, and businesses across the globe will lose the influential female leaders of tomorrow.
Leading from the front
It has been interesting to watch the decisions made and positions taken by the leaders of nations across the globe since the start of the pandemic. It has been noted that nations run by women have fared better and that in the U.S, states with female governors saw lower numbers of fatal outcomes for their populations. Professor Supriya Garikipati from the University of Liverpool and a colleague at the University of Reading, Professor Uma Kambhampati, looked at the leaders in place during the first quarter of the pandemic across 194 countries. 19 of those had female leaders.
Their findings were analysed and benchmarked; “Our results clearly indicate that women leaders reacted more quickly and decisively in the face of potential fatalities.” Professor Supriya Garikipati said. “In almost all cases, they locked down earlier than male leaders in similar circumstances.”
When restrictions finally ease and the world begins to turn once again, the challenge will be supporting women back into the roles they were destined for. This is going to be particularly hard to facilitate when women are most often the members of management pushing for these improvements and equality policies. If they are not sitting there, calling for it (because they had to downgrade or leave during the pandemic), who will be calling for urgent change? Presumably, men that want to see their profit data pointing up again. Men needn’t be fearful of this change. It is in fact, in their interests to ensure it becomes a reality. It is the mix that is the key to all future success, politically and commercially. The diversity delivers balanced and measured arguments for sustainable long-term strategies.
“Women’s economic participation and leadership in business is essential to drive business performance, as well as to advance corporate sustainability and increase global GDP.”https://30percentclub.org/
Whilst we have to respect, recognise and rejoice in the diverse strengths of women and men, we also have to appreciate that “female-friendly” employment practices and people policies will reap rewards for every stakeholder in every business, regardless of gender.. Female friendly people policies that proactively offers women greater opportunities will generate a richer, more balanced company ethos. – Our research at The Talent Enterprise demonstrates that many men are appreciative of sustainable talent practices which promote workplace well-being. Promoting an organisational culture which supports everyone, no matter what their identity and background, is more critical in 2021 than ever before.