What now for gender equality in a post-pandemic world?

Economies need to build back diversity if they are going to fully prosper in the long term

Agata Nowakowska, Area Vice President EMEA at Skillsoft, a learning experience platform, explains why businesses should make gender inclusion a key part of their post-pandemic recovery.

COVID-19 and women

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted working women. Pre-existing inequalities like the gender pay gap and childcare burdens have been exacerbated in a world impacted by job losses, increasing financial strain, and home-schooling.

More specifically, the high female representation in hard-hit industries like healthcare, hospitality, retail, and tourism and the increase in domestic violence are compounding the difficulties women face in an already disadvantaged career structure. Indeed, the UN has warned that the coronavirus outbreak could set women’s economic progress back half a century. Across the world, economies need to build back diversity if they are going to fully prosper in the long term.

Despite these major difficulties, diverse leadership teams are of demonstrable value. A study from McKinsey, for example, found that companies in the top quartile for gender and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to produce financial returns above the industry average. This is because diversity is a proven asset across key performance factors such as wide-ranging as brand image, customer, shareholder, and employee satisfaction.

And while the pandemic has brought many of society’s inequities to the fore, in some cases it has also given people a taste of how things can work better, particularly in terms of caring responsibilities.

So where does that leave gender diversity? Today, as some countries look towards post-pandemic recovery with women still making up less than 20% of global leadership teams, it is crucial that organisations provide targeted leadership development training designed to help them overcome gender biases and succeed in the most senior roles. In order to bounce back stronger than before, we must work toward closing the gap and doing all we can to support female leaders.

Building back diversity

Many organisations struggle to focus their diversity efforts and prioritise activities that will deliver genuine impact. As discussed by diversity expert Janice Gassam, for instance, taking a series of pragmatic steps can significantly increase their ability to attract and retain female leadership. Her recommendations include:

  • Provide mentoring services such as pairing senior leaders with high potential employees.
  • Make increasing the number of women leaders in your company part of your business strategy.
  • Be transparent about your numbers and goals, and look at your policies to ensure they accommodate rather than hinder your female employees.

Organisations should also enforce an equal pay and a competitive maternity leave policy, and educate all employees about the impact of unconscious bias and how our prejudices and preconceptions contribute to the inequitable workplace.

When talking about the issues around gender parity, some businesses cite the shortage of female candidates available to fill the top leadership positions as a reason for not increasing representation. Organisations have a major role to play in addressing this issue, not least by providing targeted leadership development training designed to help women overcome gender biases and learn the skills and capabilities needed to step into the roles required to assume even more responsibility and power.

For example, it’s vital to identify more talented women and the best career paths to accelerate their growth and progression. Part of the problem is that many companies still believe they are making positive gender-diversity progress simply by creating succession-planning lists, even when they only feature a few female candidates.

What should be happening, however, is that when there are very few or no women candidates to consider, organisations need to ask themselves why and then give someone the job of changing the approach.

Strategies should include development programmes that identify, support and develop female talent. IT and consulting services business, Atos, is an interesting example of what can be achieved, and its targeted succession and learning programme has already made a positive difference to increase female representation at management levels.

Ultimately, if men dominate the leadership team in any organisation, a robust succession planning strategy can help ensure that gender equality is a fundamental part of their talent management, development and recruitment processes.

Recognising progress

While we do not yet have gender equality in the workplace, in some areas the situation is getting better and it’s vital to recognise progress. In leadership positions across large organisations, there is a growing number of women now running FTSE business. Notable examples include Emma Walmsley, who has been CEO at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) since 2010, Carolynn McCall has been CEO at ITV since 2018, and Dame Sharon White who assumed the role of Chair at the John Lewis Partnership early last year.

But there is still a long way to go. The 2021 Hampton-Alexander Review revealed that while the number of female directors in FTSE companies has risen by 50% in the past five years, women still occupy just under 35% of senior roles in the leading 350 UK businesses, with over 1,000 now working at Board level.

The bottom line remains unchanged – let’s not waste any more time or talent. Women need the opportunities and support so they can move up the ladder, using their skills and experience to take their well-deserved seats at the top table.


Agata Nowakowska is Area Vice President EMEA at Skillsoft, where she leads the field operations, including enterprise and small & mid-market, as well as channel sales/strategic alliances across Europe, Middle East, and Africa.

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