The events of 2020 risk reversing the progress we have made towards gender disparity in company leadership. As many as two million women in the U.S. have either left or considered leaving the workforce because of caregiving burdens and lack of work flexibility, according to a McKinsey study on women in the workplace.
As a woman who has worked her way up the corporate ladder, this statistic is alarming to me. If we are faced with the potential for fewer women to move into leadership positions because of the pressures of the pandemic, current leaders must reframe their mindsets to address this situation and ultimately continue to close the gender gap in the C-suite.
Quotas won’t solve gender disparity
We need more women in executive positions, but I’m also a firm believer in only giving people opportunities they deserve. The key is giving those who take the initiative to step up—regardless of their gender or background—the opportunity to prove themselves. If they work hard and prove their value, they deserve the opportunity. This is true of my own journey to CFO of LogicSource.
When I started as controller, the company had recently parted ways with its CFO. I saw that as an opportunity to step up and create opportunities to prove my value. I led debt and state economic deals, guided the company through a sale, implemented entirely new financial systems within our business, and managed our transition to a new board of directors, all before I turned 35.
I never felt like I had to work harder or prove myself simply because I am a woman. I reached this level because I encouraged my colleagues to reframe their perceptions of the characteristics that make a great leader. I worked with them to create an environment where I could achieve the objectives I set for myself to progress my career, as well as being present for my two daughters at home.
As brands have prioritized gender diversity, we’ve fallen into the pattern of diversity for diversity’s sake. Now, many businesses set gender quotas and have conversations that involve the phrase “we need to hire a woman in this role” all too often. As leaders reframe how they think about diversity, the approach shouldn’t just be about setting a goal. It should be about finding new ways to let everyone shine in their own way.
Eliminating the unconscious “right here” bias
The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way that organizations think about workplace flexibility. Before March 2020, many businesses struggled to see the benefits of flexibility in working hours and location. That made it very difficult for those who needed flexibility to succeed. And, unfortunately, the social pressures of womanhood often still mean we’re the ones who need flexibility the most.
A woman may have faced career headwinds if she left the office at 4 p.m. for daycare pickup when male counterparts could stay at the office until 6 p.m.—even if, when returning home, she was getting back online and completing just as much work as she would have if she’d stayed in the office until 6 p.m. (or longer). This creates an unconscious mark against her “commitment” due to not physically being in the office—the unconscious “right here” bias.
Of course, I must call out that this issue isn’t exclusive to women but, as I previously mentioned, we intrinsically bear these responsibilities most often. However, I believe the rise in remote work has created a broader acceptance of flexible schedules, removing some of the barriers women face when looking to advance their careers at the same pace as their male counterparts. If mindsets around workplace flexibility continue to change, we should see increasingly that women have the same opportunities to advance their careers as their male counterparts.
Leveraging female leadership traits for growth
Women are commonly viewed as empathetic and trustworthy leaders. Unfortunately, these traits have not traditionally been viewed as top traits for the C-suite.
Yet our ability to apply the skills we’ve honed as daughters, wives, and mothers—like empathy and communication—gives us a unique advantage to approach the C-suite from a different perspective. I’ve seen this firsthand when acting as the facilitator between other executives trying to solve a problem or as the glue that held our team together during a transitional period in our business.
We should value what women can naturally bring to the leadership table. According to a recent article in Harvard Business Review, “firms with more women in senior positions are more profitable, more socially responsible, and provide safer, higher-quality customer experiences—among many other benefits.”
It’s time business leaders reframe what successful leadership looks like by recognizing these attributes, as well as creating an environment where people can step up and prove their worth and be rewarded for it equally regardless of gender or background.
It’s my hope that, as we emerge from the pandemic, we’ll soon see all genders and backgrounds on an equal playing field based on a new definition of leadership attributes and the opportunities we give colleagues to showcase them. Only then will we start to sustainably close gender disparity in the C-suite.