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Women in Business

Gender diversity in leadership: Silver linings created by COVID-19

Stacey Davies Stacey Davies

Now that we’re well into year three of the pandemic, for me, International Women’s Day 2022 is perhaps the most significant time to reflect on the monumental impact this black swan event has had on our work culture, and the speed at which previous norms have been turned on their head.

If I was writing this piece three decades ago at the start of my career, I would be sitting in a cubicle in my dress-code-compliant skirt (no more than three centimetres above the knee!), high heels (a requirement unless you were pregnant), surrounded by similarly dressed ladies and of course, men who had to be suited and booted. And of course, the back then, most organisations  were in all likelihood led by boards or partner groups comprising only men.  

Today, I can “dress for the day”, per our firm’s dress code which has been in place for a few years now, along with technology enabling us to work from anywhere. In the past decade, I have seen mindset changes across the businesses I work with, my own industry and society in general. It’s taken some time but today the business community enjoys a far more inclusive, authentic and diverse culture and outlook – all of which have been accelerated by the pandemic.

COVID-19 has created more opportunities for women in business

COVID-19 has created greater demand for more diverse leadership to meet the challenges of the post-pandemic business landscape. Subsequently, the doors for female talent to access senior positions have been flung wide open - and in greater numbers than ever before.

According to Grant Thornton’s latest Women in Business Research, the war for talent is raging on. More than 70% of businesses surveyed are now working to create a more inclusive environment to attract and retain female recruits. These businesses are specifically seeking out the perspectives and attributes female leaders can bring to the table.

In a 2019 study published in Harvard Business Review, women in senior positions were rated in 360-degree reviews as highly competent in a range of key leadership characteristics. These included taking the initiative, resilience, inspiring and motivating others, championing change and driving for results – all vital skills needed for agile, forward-looking businesses aiming to thrive in the post- pandemic economy.

Leadership styles have evolved throughout the pandemic and, if anything, business leaders have recognised that empathy and human connection are extremely beneficial in the long-term.

The pandemic has sharply shifted perceptions around work schedules

In the early days of the pandemic, few could have predicted the lasting effect COVID-19 would have on established ways of working. Now, with much of the world stabilising, and recognition from businesses that change is needed, the march toward increasingly inclusive working practices to attract and retain a more diverse talent pool continues unabated.

With nearly two thirds (57%) of mid-market leaders expecting a skill shortage to be a major constraint to their businesses in the year ahead, Grant Thornton’s research shows that in response, 95% of mid-market business leaders are now taking action to foster staff engagement and create an inclusive culture. 

This flexibility has changed the perception around work schedules. The idea of productivity is no longer driven by physical presence in the office and is much more oriented towards deliverables and outputs. Assuming these working models remain after the pandemic, it’s fair to assume this will deliver many more leadership opportunities for women who, in the past, were confined by traditional approaches to work. Now, they have the freedom of choice and it’s our expectation more inclusive environments are here to stay for the foreseeable future.  

Career trajectories are set to smash the glass ceiling – but the number of women in senior management still moving at a glacial pace

As these new ways of working become the norm for many organisations, 73% of respondents expect that the impact of COVID-19 will continue to benefit women’s career trajectories long-term – an increase of four percentage points from our 2021 research. This could be an indication that a step change is on the horizon.  But in the meantime, the number of women in senior management positions continues its glacial progress, advancing just a single percentage point to 32% in 2022. All global regions have now passed the crucial 30% milestone, including APAC, which was the only region not to hit this figure in 2021. 

While any progress is positive in light of COVID-19, this figure that has grown by only eight percentage points over the past ten years, showing that progress is being made, but at a sluggish rate when measured against many best-practise diversity metrics. Similarly, the proportion of businesses with at least one woman in senior management remains static at 90%. 

Now is not the time to get complacent

Everything gained can be easily lost when we’re talking about progress that is this gradual. Positive market driven influences are all well and good, but without a consistent and structured approach to gender balance and diversity overall, we could see progress halted or even reversed.