The good news is that there are a record number of women at the helm of Fortune 500 companies. The bad news is that the figure is only 37, or just 7.4%, despite the fact that women are half of the population.
The pandemic may be sending us backwards when it comes to gender equality. Out of the 1.1 million people who left the workforce in September, roughly 865,000 were women. Latinas and Black women are leaving at higher rates than white women. The financial price paid for the average woman who opts out and tries to re-enter the workforce is an 18% decrease in their earning power on average—and a 37% decrease when they’re out for three years or more. This will have a lasting impact on families and the U.S. economy.
But how will this mass exodus of women from the workforce impact women’s representation in leadership positions down the road? Senior-level women are 1.5 times more likely than senior-level men to think about downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce because of Covid-19, according to Lean In’s Women in the Workplace 2020 report. Almost three in four cite burnout as a main reason, with increased caregiving duties playing a big role. Reentering the workplace once you’ve left may mean taking a lower position, and a slower path to promotions.
I spoke to a number of women leaders on what they believe it takes for women to advance into top leadership positions, as well as what we all stand to lose if the pandemic forces more women leaders out of the workplace.
Women contribute to cultures of inclusion. More than 50% of senior-level women say they regularly take a stand for gender and racial equity at work, compared to roughly 40% of senior-level men, according to the Women in the Workplace 2020 report. And they’re more likely to mentor and sponsor other women: 38% of senior-level women currently mentor or sponsor one or more women of color, compared to only 23% of senior-level men.
“I’m half Asian, I’m a mother, I’m over 40 years old, and a first-generation American,” says Jennifer Kohl, SVP executive director of integrated media at VMLY&R. “For me, the biggest impact of my intersectionality has resulted in me hiring a really diverse team with a mix of perspectives at the table and dimensions of identity. It wasn’t purposeful on my part, but there has to be some bi-product of that intersectionality being inherently within me, and my ability to reach into my networks that are already naturally diverse.”
Women bring higher emotional intelligence (EQ) to the workplace. “Our research shows that women score up to 10 to 15% higher on EQ than men, with minorities scoring eight to 12% higher than whites,” says Caron Evans, head of insights at Untapped AI, which offers coaching to employees while leveraging AI insights. “This makes sense because these skills are needed for caregiving, which continues to predominantly fall on women’s shoulders. If you’re a minority in the room, you have to navigate the space where you are not the majority, so that calls for higher EQ skills. EQ has traditionally been undervalued in the workplace, but it’s exactly what’s needed now in organizations during this pandemic to lead teams and be in tune with your employees as many companies have gone remote.”
Other research backs this up: Companies with strong financial performance tend to have employees with higher levels of self-awareness, a key dimension of EQ, than poorly performing companies, according to Korn Ferry International.
Women are positioned to lead during a crisis. “If you look at how female leadership has stood out on the global stage during Covid, such as with New Zealand’s Jacina Ardern, Germany’s Angela Merkel, and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-Wen, it is clear that women are particularly strong leaders in times of crisis,” says Teresa Carroll, president at Oasis, a Paychex Company. “This speaks to other research that indicates, in general, some of women’s key areas of strength may be empathy, multitasking, and the ability to take a lot of input, organize it, and make decisions.”
Carroll says reading the book How Women Rise helped her uncover some behaviors that tend to benefit women early in their careers, but may hold them back as they try to rise to the C-suite, such as reluctance to claim achievements or perfectionism. This may be why many women suffer from imposter syndrome, or the inability to attribute your success to your hard work, capabilities and experience. “The more you get women in senior leadership roles and on boards, the more those won’t be behaviors that will hold women back, because male-run boards tend to look for behaviors that they have in themselves,” says Carroll.
Women can lead the change. “We’re experiencing a cultural shift now, because of all of the events that have recently unfolded,” say Deepa Purushothaman and Rha Goddess, cofounders of nFormation, a membership-based community for professional women of color. “So much of what we need to be healthy, happy humans is in conflict with traditional corporate culture. Professional settings require us to perform in a lot of defined ways in order to rise to senior positions, which are not congruent with what it means to be a woman of color. We don’t have the support we need, and then add on the layers of unconscious bias and the extreme circumstances we’re living in right now. We’re starting to see conversations about how we need different criteria from leaders as we rise, such as empathy and compassion. Women of color are in a unique position to redefine what it means to be a leader for not only women of color, but for all women.”
Companies need to support women leaders during Covid. The pandemic is requiring us to reimagine the workplace both now, and even longer term into the future. The way in which companies support—or don’t support—female leaders during the pandemic will impact their ability to retain current senior-level women, as well as attract future women leaders. “Companies should take this crisis as an opportunity to rethink our workplaces, and ask, ‘What can we do differently?” says Kimberly Keaton Williams, VP of talent acquisition and development and Chief Diversity Officer at McLaren Health Care. “We’ve looked for innovative ways to extend paid time off to furloughed workers, allowed for remote work where possible, and offered flexible schedule options—which benefits everyone, but especially women. We leave the door open so, if talented women do have to step away, they can come back when we get through this crisis.”
The workplace, and the world, won’t be the same after the pandemic. Companies can leverage the crisis to transform workplace culture in order to keep women in leadership. Those that are able to do so will not only be helping women, but also benefit from increased loyalty, innovation and profits down the road.
Article originally published in Forbes.