What organisations can do to re-engage, retain and support women

David Wells
Apr 22, 2021

It is becoming clear that the global coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately impacted women. Some studies are saying that women have been set back more than three decades in terms of their work and careers opportunities. What can women professionals, in particular, themselves do to increase their resilience and confidence, and so enhance their staying power? What can women – and indeed men – do to support their female colleagues in the workplace? And how can organisations re-engage with women to retain and support them?

Before Covid-19 hit the global economy, women had been making some progress in the workplace. Looking at the financial services sector, around 22% of leadership positions were held by women in 2019, a figure that was forecast to grow to over 30% by the year 2030. This was still way below parity, but there is evidence that a ‘multiplier effect’ would influence the growth rate: for each additional woman that was recruited onto the C-suite, the number of women in senior leadership roles would increase threefold.

When Covid hit, the consequences were almost immediate (and far greater in emerging economies): women became twice as vulnerable to job losses as men. As a result, the succession pipeline is now at real risk.

As things stand, with the effects of Covid still being played out, a McKinsey report* states: ‘In a gender-regressive, “do nothing” scenario—which assumes that the higher negative impact of Covid-19 on women remains unaddressed—global GDP in 2030 would be $1 trillion below where it would have been if Covid-19 had affected men and women equally in their respective areas of employment.’

If action is taken now to redress the post-Covid gender imbalance, to raise the female-to-male ratio in the workplace, the resulting improvement in gender equity could add $13 trillion to global GDP by 2030, the McKinsey analysis concludes.

Organisation culture

What can organisations do to enhance the role of women? According to Kim Andrade, expert in leadership development, organisational consulting and diversity & inclusion, when you are mapping out ideas for actions that your organisation can take to increase gender equity and representation, think first about your culture. Consider the context you’re operating in. Does the organisation look like a place where women can succeed? What do behaviours look like – do people interact positively with one another in respect of gender equality? Do your employee handbook, your policies and incentives, initiatives and programmes reflect the business you want to be?

Broadly-based diverse approaches to talent management and development can help redress gender imbalance. Promoting the right attitudes can alter deep-seated assumptions and biases in people development. It can help launch career highways specifically aimed at women – and get them back on the highway, and at the right pace – after returning to work after a career break for, say, family reasons.

When you are looking to hire someone into a senior role, the interview process is one area that you can look at differently. You can bring diverse voices into the equation, to ensure successful candidates reflect your organisational values. Perhaps yours have a white, male, middle-class European bias at senior level. In this case, set up an interview panel, with recruitment training, that that can bring diverse voices to the selection process – and not only in terms of gender, but of age, nationality and ethnicity. You will get more nuanced and accurate perspectives of candidates, and they will get a clearer picture of how you want to be perceived – and operate – as an organisation.

Taking Action and Building Allyship

What action can be taken to help women improve their prospects for rising up in the organisational ladder? How can resilience be developed? Sapna Welsh, Executive Coach & Consultant in Diversity & Inclusion, outlines three common themes she came across among successful women leaders that were interviewed across the globe: seek forgiveness, ask for help, and leverage your strengths.

Let’s look at how a few of these can play out.

Many of us have been isolated by acting in dispersed teams, working remotely or working from home over the last year in a distributed business environment. So we can think about the networks we have and how these can be called on for support during the pandemic. Identify the different people in your ‘tribe’ and reach out to them. It requires no apology under the circumstances, so they will forgive you – and perhaps welcome the ‘intrusion’.

You can go further by creating new allies in your organisation – in particular, seeking out and enlisting what we call performative allies. These are perhaps marginalised voices in a business, but they really understand and give voice to the risks of women leaving the organisation. Or they can be senior leaders who have already identified themselves as female allies. To find them, consider what communications you have heard that reinforce the message that the business understands the risks from gender imbalance, and how it is being managed. They can become your mentors, your allies, you can speak up for each other – and they can be men, or non-binary, as well as women!

Take the initiative and make the call without bias. Engage with them so they know you are on their wavelength. You can be allies in the mission to enhance gender equality. Seek out others to bring new voices into your alliance. If there is a ‘women in leadership’ group in your organisation, engage with them so that you can identify opportunities for gender equality.

Tip of the iceberg

There is much more that can be done to address gender imbalance, and invest in the post-Covid future to help you and your organisation contribute to that extra $13 trillion in global GDP within the next 10 years. It can work equally at grassroots and at group levels: corporate and team strategy protocols that ensure diverse voices are heard and fully engaged. Learning, training and leadership development programmes with a defined gender bias. Recruitment policies that identify, consider and select suitable in-house people, alongside external candidates. Career pipelines that track and create a clear line of sight to identify leaders of the future. And individuals that are encouraged to take the initiative, to speak out, with whatever support that’s required – to improve their own chances of attaining senior positions, and to redress the gender imbalance.

Watch our webinar on this topic: Diversity & Inclusion in Financial Services – Women in the Workplace

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David Wells

Writer and communications consultant