The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us one clear, valuable lesson: Women make great leaders. Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand; K. K. Shailaja, the minister of health and social welfare of Kerala state in India; and Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, have undeniably seen success in managing and controlling the pandemic response in their respective countries. The real problem is that lingering structural and systemic issues still lead societies to value men over women, leaving few women in national leadership roles.
The reasons for this are complex. Often, women are simply not permitted to enter leadership positions. Other times, societal pressures and expectations prevent women from having the confidence to do so. Yet empowering women is necessary, so that their communities can benefit from the full potential of their leadership. If we are to build up and promote women in the workplace, our efforts must begin at home.
Most societies, even in the 21st century, still feel that a woman’s primary role is that of homemaker. Women are expected to put their careers on hold so that their professional duties do not interfere with their familial responsibilities. Women often have to work a kind of “second shift”1 to cover both their paying job and their housework, which forces many women to ultimately sacrifice either their family or their career. Further exacerbating this challenge are the plethora of companies that offer no provisions for maternal or paternal leave, which inevitably places the burden of childcare on women.
Empowerment, in the truest sense, means giving women opportunities for success that are equal to men’s. At this point, such opportunities are lacking. Companies must place their focus and efforts on strategic planning and concrete mechanisms that will provide equal access to leadership opportunities . Such changes would play a crucial role in enabling women to boost their self-confidence through their own actions and achievements.
Studies have proved that having a diverse workforce confers enormous benefits. A Catalyst study, for example, states that the financial performance of businesses that have a higher proportion of women on their top management teams is better than that of companies with fewer women in upper management roles.2 Thus, actively hiring and promoting more women is not only advantageous for companies but also mutually beneficial.
Another way of making the corporate sector more welcoming to women is to actively encourage women to pursue corporate careers. Companies can position women leaders as brand representatives, thereby demonstrating to young women that being a consultant, an entrepreneur, or a CEO, for example, are all very achievable goals. This kind of representation will help young women have faith in themselves and their dreams, and encourage them to achieve them. It will also help them to define their future goals, which is a necessary part of becoming a successful leader in the future.
1 Hochschild, Arlie, and Anne Machung. (1989) The Second Shift: Working Families and the Revolution at Home. New York: Penguin Books.
2 Catalyst. (2004) “Report: The Bottom Line: Connecting Corporate Performance and Gender Diversity.” Research report, sponsored by BMO Financial Group. Available at www.catalyst.org/research/the-bottom-line-connecting-corporate-performance-and-gender-diversity/.
In addition, the pay gap between men and women in the corporate sector must be addressed and remedied. A study by PayScale shows that even in 2020, women earn just $0.81 for every dollar men do.3
To overcome systemic discrimination, women need and deserve strategic support. For example, a report by PwC states that after returning to the workplace, 48% of new mothers felt they had been passed over for novel projects and promotions.4 Companies must address these concerns and do so effectively with long-term planning and strategies to include women.
Companies also have a responsibility to make their events and activities more accessible to all employees equally. Women who commute via public transportation must often consider the safety risks of staying after hours to work or to socialize with coworkers because doing so would require them to return home alone late at night. This impediment renders certain social events unavailable, which can have a negative impact on their career progression. And the expectation for women to be “family oriented” can make attending late-night meetings and covering evening shifts a struggle. Jobs that involve significant travel impose a similar burden. Providing transportation services and flexible work hours can address many of these obstacles to joining the corporate sector.
Companies must create safe spaces within the workplace as well, to help women feel secure in their places of employment. This is of particular importance in the wake of the Me Too movement, which highlighted the stunning frequency of sexual harassment in the workplace. Women’s lack of trust in the companies and institutions they work for discourages them from coming forward and speaking publicly about such negative experiences. Every office must have adequate safety measures in place to protect employees from sexual harassment and establish a board or committee to address women’s concerns. These delegated bodies should be made up of women and legal representatives, so that a sense of trust and solidarity can be established with those who need to report an incident. Managers, HR professionals, and all first-contact persons for employees must also be well trained to ensure the creation of an empathetic, sensitive environment for those wishing to address issues of sexual harassment.
The efforts outlined here will help empower women and give them confidence in the workplace. As Michelle Obama rightly said, “There is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish.” Companies must take concrete steps if they want to tap into the full potential of their women employees. Only when these plans are implemented will we see more and more women in positions of real leadership.
3 PayScale. (2020) “The State of the Gender Pay Gap 2020” (webpage). Accessed MONTH #, 2020. www.payscale.com/data/gender-pay-gap.
4 PwC. (2018) “Time to Talk: What Has to Change for Women at Work.” Available at www.pwc.com/gx/en/about/diversity/iwd/international-womens-day-pwc-time-to-talk-report.pdf.