Supporting women leaders, beyond the crisis


Since the start of the pandemic, tens of millions of women have left the workforce, many permanently. As a result, women’s participation in the global workforce has fallen to crisis levels, but the impact goes even deeper. As women leaders have more engaged teams and drive better job performance, the collateral damage includes loss of engagement and productivity from any employee who will now not work for a woman. Research by Potential Project confirms this impact and documents that female leaders score significantly higher than their male counterparts on the critical leadership qualities of wisdom and compassion, and this translates into business and financial results. To use these findings for better outcomes for all their employees, organizations must promote principles and practices that: promote gender equality, develop compassionate leadership, and increase learning through intentional peer coaching and counseling circles for men and women.

The negative impact of the pandemic on women in the workforce will not be undone for a very long time. In the first year of the pandemic alone, 54 million women around the world left the workforce, nearly 90 percent of whom left the workforce entirely. The participation rate of women in the global workforce is now below 47%, drastically lower than that of men at 72%.

These losses have a devastating impact on gender equality, career development and female representation in leadership positions. But we underestimate the magnitude of the problem if we only look at the consequences for women. The collateral damage is the loss of engagement and productivity from any employee who will now not work for a woman, as female leaders have more engaged teams, drive better work performance, and save their organization millions of dollars as a result. At a time when so many employees are leaving to seek opportunities elsewhere and companies are facing a 15-year high talent shortage, retaining and promoting more female leaders is the best and most urgent solution to safeguarding all staff. .

Women do difficult things better

Potential Project conducted a multi-year survey of leaders and employees of approximately 5,000 companies in nearly 100 countries. We wanted to learn how leaders do the hard things that come with their top positions, while still remaining good people. We have distilled the analysis into two main characteristics: wisdom, the courage to do what must be done, even when it is difficult; and compassion, the concern and empathy for others, combined with the intention to support and help. Both traits are important, but when combined, there is an exponentially greater impact on key metrics. For example, job satisfaction is 86% higher for an employee who works for a wise and compassionate leader than for an employee who does not. (To gauge your own wisdom and compassion as a leader, feel free to take this quick assessment.)

When we analyze the data by gender, the differences, if not shocking, are quite stark. 55% of the women in our survey were ranked by their followers as wise and compassionate, compared to just 27% of men. Conversely, 56% of the men in our study scored poorly on wisdom and compassion, landing in a quadrant we call ineffective indifference. By a margin of 2:1, followers said that female leaders versus male leaders are capable of doing difficult things in a humane way.

Before we started the study, we had no idea that “doing hard things humanely” would essentially become job #1 for leaders. When a global pandemic changed the fabric of work and irreversibly turned our lives upside down, leaders had to make incredibly difficult decisions with no roadmap to fall back on. They were called upon to guide their teams through waves of grief, fear and uncertainty, to help protect their mental health and to reveal their own vulnerabilities along the way.

Unsurprisingly, then, women who stayed in the workforce and excel in wise compassion have become the heroes of the pandemic. A recent McKinsey report confirms how women achieve this extraordinary moment as stronger leaders and take on the extra work that comes with it, compared to men at the same level. In their survey of 65,000 employees, female managers were rated higher by their employees because they took the people-centric actions that helped them through the pandemic: provide emotional support (12 percent more), monitor overall wellbeing (7% more), take action to burn -out to master (5% more).

Beyond the crisis

Often a story arises that says that women are better at leading in a crisis, as if their leadership qualities only emerge occasionally and then disappear again. While the extraordinary circumstances of the past two years have once again highlighted the strengths of women as leaders, this is not an isolated incident. The truth is that we all enjoy our work more and perform better when we work for a woman. Our research confirms many great studies (such as this one by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman) that have already established this fact.

In our research, we looked at key business outcomes and the gender differences between the employee and the leader. This is what we found:

Across many metrics, including work engagement and job performance, the worst results occur when a man works for a man, and the best results occur when a woman leads a woman or a man. Data points like these should question who holds leadership positions and how we develop leaders. When you translate these findings into financial impact, the call to action grows.

We looked at respondents in our survey population who actively distance themselves from their jobs; in other words, those who have miserable work experiences and spread their unhappiness to their colleagues. With male leaders in our population, 18% of their followers are actively disengaged compared to 11% of female leaders’ followers. Based on Gallup research, an unengaged employee costs their organization $3,400 for every $10,000 in salary in lost productivity. By encouraging more engaged/less engaged employees, women leaders save their organization $1.43 million for every 1,000 employees (assuming an average salary of $60,000). On top of that comes the savings because you don’t have to replace a laid-off employee, which takes half to two times the employee’s annual salary, or between $30,000 and $120,000 per employee.

Where to go from here

There are critical ways organizations can use these insights to create better outcomes for all employees.

Promote gender equality.

First, while organizations have made progress, they still have a long way to go in supporting and promoting women. Currently, white males occupy 62% of C-suite positions and the pandemic has widened the global gender gap so much that it will now take 135.6 years to close. This work should start early in one’s career. As McKinsey describes, women face a “broken sport” in the first step to manager: For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are promoted, meaning far fewer women promote to higher levels. The pandemic has exacerbated the pipeline problem by creating unsustainable working conditions for women: millions have worked from home while homeschooling children, caring for other dependents and juggling increased household responsibilities. A first positive step towards long-term gender equality that organizations can take is updating flexible and work-from-home arrangements to truly reflect and support the realities women face. Make sure these arrangements don’t get in the way of promotions and evaluate the quality of childcare options available to your employees. Here are other ideas for promoting gender equality as we return to the office.

Develop compassionate leadership.

Second, while women may have a more entrenched, natural aptitude for compassionate leadership, we also know that compassion can be learned. Anyone interested in becoming a wiser and more compassionate leader can unlearn old ways of leading and relearn how to be more human. The premise is to set an intention to bring more care and kindness into your daily management. It can be as simple as asking the question, “How are you really doing?” There are also mind training techniques that can help you rewire your brain so that a compassionate orientation becomes your standard way of living and leading.

Deliberate learning from colleagues.

Third, companies can create peer coaching and counseling circles for men and women where they can learn more from each other about ways to do difficult things in a wise and compassionate way. In our work, we have found that these forms of semi-structured, intentionally designed development initiatives can help leaders from a wide range of different backgrounds learn from each other. These forums can also help plant seeds for creating more wise, compassionate and inclusive cultures in which we recognize, harness and learn our strengths.

There is so much need for more wisdom and compassion in the world of work and beyond – and it is clear that women leaders are a primary source of these priceless qualities. Unfortunately, when we asked our respondents how much wisdom and compassion played a part in their ideal leadership style, male leaders replied that they wanted more wisdom but less compassion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, women leaders responded that they wanted more wisdom and more compassion.

Let’s do everything we can to support and develop our current and future women leaders. We all need them.

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