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The Toll of COVID-19 on Women Leaders | How Executives Can Reverse the Trend

January 28, 2021 Maria Howard

As the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact our personal and professional lives in profound ways, leaders are striving to find meaning in crisis—to inspire and empower communities, teams and their organizations to persevere, even amid great loss. Leaders must go further—to pair the empowerment of our employees with our responsibility to set policy, allocate resources and take action to close the gaps that have grown for our largest underrepresented population—women.

To do this effectively, we must first understand, acknowledge and transparently discuss the inequalities that have been compounded by this unprecedented crisis:

Since the pandemic began, women have lost 860,000 jobs, and the numbers are not improving, with recent data released in December showing continued losses. Women of color are disproportionately represented in these losses.

Earlier this year, the UN warned that the impact of the pandemic could reverse decades of progress toward gender parity, and LeanIn found that one in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce due to COVID-19.

The impact on our businesses and the global economy could also be severe. McKinsey’s research indicates that if no action is taken to counter the disproportionate effect on women, the global GDP growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030 than it would be if women’s unemployment simply tracked that of men.

How can we rise to the challenge of COVID-19 and mitigate the professional impact of this health crisis? It starts with executive action.

Linkage’s research on the advancement of women leaders finds that executive action is critical to success. “For women leaders to fully engage and be inspired by a future vision that includes gender equality, they must look up and see executives in their organization not only talking about advancing women, but taking action,” writes Jennifer McCollum, CEO of Linkage.

Each leader must start by committing to the advancement of women leaders at every level, with an emphasis on creating diverse leadership pipelines and diverse leaders who reflect your employees and customers. By sharing your commitment with your organization and your network, you bring visibility to the issue, acknowledge your accountability to make change happen, and engage your teams in a critical conversation.

Here are the commitments I shared with my own network:

  • I commit to using my access and influence in my work and personal life to boldly advocate for women’s equity to those who have the power to set policy, make decisions and drive accountability in their organizations.
  • I commit to call attention to the injustice that women of color are experiencing and concentrate my own hiring and sponsorship efforts to those who are underrepresented and underserved.
  • I commit to continue to learn about others’ experiences to know better and do better.

What does executive action to support women leaders look like?

Executive action can include sponsorship initiatives to improve the visibility of rising female talent. Sponsorship goes beyond mentorship, where you intentionally advocate for your sponsee, including talking about her to others to promote her, endorsing her, and leveraging your own networks to open doors for her. Here’s the benefit: not only are people with sponsors 23% more likely to advance their careers than those without, but you also increase engagement, with 83% of sponsored multicultural women reporting they are satisfied with their ability to advance vs. 40% of multicultural women who don’t have a sponsor.

Executive action is also about opening lines of communication with women at your organization, so that you can understand, in real time, the evolving needs and challenges women are facing. During a health pandemic where women are working from home but responsible for the double shift—childcare, homeschooling, eldercare, household duties—women need flexibility. Which new policies on flexibility would best benefit them? Ask and listen to create a culture where women feel valued and heard and can be part of the solution, a critical step toward improved retention and engagement of this critical workforce.

Finally, we must lead inclusively where each team member can be recognized for their superpowers that drive the success of organizational goals. This can be achieved through a few simple behaviors:

  1. Understand your team’s unique strengths and leverage these strengths across work assignments and projects to drive the full contribution of their potential.
  2. Conduct inclusive meetings across the organization where everyone is involved, feels comfortable contributing their ideas and questions, and can do so in an authentic way.
  3. Lead by example where your practices are fair and equitable, and you are welcoming in leading the organization.

The leader who comes prepared to lead authentically and confront these topics head-on will inspire teams to new heights in 2021.

Dark haired woman watches from audience of conference event

Women in Leadership Institute

NOV. 13–16, 2023 | Orlando, Florida, or Virtual
A 4-day immersive learning experience designed to equip women leaders with actionable strategies to overcome the hurdles women often face in the workplace.

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