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There’s a Great Wake-up Call around Women in Leadership. We Need to Answer It.

September 27, 2022 Jennifer McCollum

Part Two of a Six-Part Series

A few weeks ago, I shared a blog post responding to the release of the 2022 Global 500 list. While the list revealed disappointing stats—women CEOs lead only 24 of these 500 companies—there are some encouraging signs that progress toward gender equity in leadership is gaining momentum.

The first trend I covered is the rising numbers of women on boards. Connected to that trend is the evolving external pressure to make this shift, with some financial institutions flexing their significant power as institutional shareholders. For example, in 2021, Goldman Sachs Asset Management voted against more than 800 companies globally that had no women on the board. In 2022, they expanded their expectation to two women on boards in the US and are also incorporating diversity expectations beyond gender to underrepresented ethnic minority groups.

While both of these trends bode well for the future of women in leadership, there’s a third one intertwined with them that I feel is even more promising, because it’s on the agendas of nearly every company executive I meet: There’s a notable and growing “Great Wake-up Call” around women’s value to corporate America—and why we need to take aggressive action now to protect their stake in our future.

To set the stage, let’s look back at the #MeToo Movement. #MeToo started in 2006 when Tarana Burke coined the term, but really took off in 2017 with abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein. The movement surfaced awareness of inappropriate behavior in the workplace, from assault to sexual harassment to the microaggressions often born of unconscious bias that undermine women’s progress and harm our well-being.

While #MeToo brought some extremely helpful awareness, it fell short of accelerating the advancement of women in leadership. What actually moved awareness to action was COVID-19 and its aftermath. As the world unraveled in March 2020, women took the hardest fall. Not only did their work get tougher, but so did their unpaid “second shift” at home. For so many women, it was all just too much. By mid-2021, the Great Resignation was in full swing, and McKinsey reported in their annual study that one in three women planned to downshift in their roles or leave the workforce altogether.

Women did leave at an alarming rate, and the trend continues. In fact, a 2022 Deloitte Global survey of 5,000 women cited that more than half intend to quit their jobs within the next two years, primarily due to burnout.

So, with these trends now fully in focus, businesses are waking up. They’re realizing that they already had too few women in their management and leadership ranks, and they can’t even maintain, let alone grow, their pipelines when the very women they need are leaving. Statistics show that companies with women represented at the top are 50 percent more likely to outperform their peers*; they create better client retention, organic growth, and profit with gender-balanced teams. And companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to outperform the competition.**

It’s not just about the numbers; it’s about the value. We need women’s perspective and their unique qualities and skills at the highest levels of our companies. The evolving expectations of leadership favors the shift from “old school” command-and-control management to leadership that inspires, engages and transforms. This paradigm shift calls for the gifts women naturally possess by our culture—characteristics like empathy, vulnerability, authenticity and inclusion.

We’re seeing this awakening manifest inside our client companies, and those who are responding intentionally and consistently will reap the rewards.

One great example from this year is a leading auto parts distributor who we are currently working with. They have signed up for an extensive 18-month executive sponsorship and women’s development program designed to build a more diverse pipeline to the executive level. The program pairs their top 34 executives with their top 34 women of color.

The idea is to develop both underrepresented women (starting this year with Black women) and the sponsors who have been selected to support them (over 80 percent white men). Sponsors develop cultural fluency and get to broaden their leadership scope inside the company. Protégés gain access, exposure and insight into executive leadership capabilities, as well as immersion in Linkage’s framework for Mastering Your Inner Critic and overcoming the 7 Other High Hurdles to Advancement that women face.

This organization is showing us what real commitment looks like. And they are not alone. More and more companies will surely join them as the benefits of sincere and intensive efforts like this one start to manifest.

The way I see it, this realization that we have a gender crisis in leadership—the Great Wake-up Call—is the most powerful of these three trends. Why? While getting women on boards will certainly help drive more women into leadership down all rungs of the ladder, it will take a long time. Companies that answer the Great Wake-up Call now and invest proactively in engaging, retaining and developing all their women leaders will emerge as the winners, as will the women who work for them.

*McKinsey, “Diversity wins: How inclusion matters,” May 19, 2020
**McKinsey, “Why diversity matters,” January 1, 2015

Jennifer McCollum will host Linkage’s Women in Leadership Institute this November 13–16 in Orlando, Florida, and virtually. Join thousands of women leaders for four days of transformational development and supercharge your leadership journey.

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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