I recently posted an article that looked at the alarming trend of women leaders quitting their jobs en masse. Assessing a variety of different research and popular thought, a few key trends driving these mass women-led walkouts are evident.
These include a lack of opportunities for women to organically progress into leadership roles, a lack of recognition of the invisible responsibilities that women leaders take on that leave them exhausted and burnt out in their roles, prevailing outdated attitudes and micro-aggressions that make it difficult for women leaders to thrive and a misaligned workplace culture that doesn’t champion DEI and mental health (McKinsey, 2022).
Despite the immense progress that women have made in the cultural acceleration and acceptance of female leaders, sometimes it can feel like, for one obstacle that’s overcome, two more spring up as a result.
Additional findings paint a grim picture of the state of women in leadership going forward. Recent insights from The Reykjavik Index for Leadership, an annual study that compares how women and men are viewed in terms of their suitability for leadership and positions of power, demonstrated that prevailing attitudes regarding women leaders have regressed in 2022.
Across the G7 countries surveyed, fewer than half of the total respondents (47%) said they feel “very comfortable” having a woman as their leader, whether in a management or C-Suite role, compared to 54% in 2021.
There are likely a variety of factors fueling these regressive attitudes, and fixing this burgeoning gap in trust in women leaders is crucial, lest we lose what valuable grounds we have managed to cover in recent years.
We’ve looked at the reasons why we’re seeing fewer women occupying leadership positions – the question now becomes: what can be done about it? As a business, as a society and as existing leaders? What practical steps and strategies can be implemented to help nurture and develop women leaders so that they can occupy leadership positions and – crucially – retain them.
How to nurture and develop female leaders within organisations
We can’t easily solve the complex interplay of generational, structural, environmental and social contributors of workplace discrimination against women – that challenge is far too great for one individual, organisation or even society to solve.
What’s required is to create environments within organisations that’s welcoming, supportive, mindful and encouraging of women in leadership roles. It’s not enough to implement structural or process changes without also making changes to culture and attitude – the two feed into each other and need to align.
In terms of structural and procedural improvement, the first step to take is to fix the “broken rung” as McKinsey calls it, referring to the broken pipeline of women being moved from entry-level positions to management and, eventually, executive and c-suite roles.
If an organisation’s management is not reflective of its workforce, that is the starting point, not just in terms of women to men, but also women of colour, differently-abled and LGBTQ+ women.
Next, organisations need to make sure that their training, feedback and evaluation processes are beneficial to women leaders. In a study published by the Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity, it was found that male leaders receive more practical, actionable feedback compared to female leaders.
While men were encouraged to embrace “bigger picture” thinking, pursue their leadership ambitions and leverage existing workplace politics to their advantage, women were encouraged to simply focus on meeting deliverables, maintain team cooperation and cope with workplace politics in order to not let it affect their performance.
When providing training or feedback to male and female leaders, organisations need to be sure to scrutinise the overt and underlying messages being shared. Is the information or advice practical, actionable and measurable and does it relate to developing and improving specific skill sets?
The culture developed within the workplace also plays a big role in the experience women have in leadership. The achievements of both men and women leaders in organisations need to be celebrated and recognised..
Women leaders need to be given the space to share their ideas and not allowed interruptions from other leaders or colleagues, male or female. An environment that allows for everyone to be heard and respected needs to be promoted.
Many women leaders in organisations are likely managing additional DEI issues that may not show up in their list of responsibilities, which could account for burnout or exhaustion. DEI needs to be a part of the workplace culture and equip all leaders with the resources they need to manage their teams both professionally and interpersonally.
Lastly, workplaces need to nurture the right attitudes and values that contribute to women’s success, no matter their role. Flexible and remote work options need to be available to all employees.
Sexist, misogynistic and prejudiced jokes and comments have no place in the 21st century, no matter how “harmless” they might seem – workplace values need to clearly communicate this and communication channels that can funnel feedback back into organisations need to be set up. This helps to create a culture of open, comfortable communication and prevent people, particularly women leaders, from feeling like they can’t share or discuss their experiences in the workplace with anyone.
How to encourage female leadership out of the workplace
Creating an environment that supports and encourages women leaders doesn’t begin and end within the workplace. It’s an endeavour that needs to be taken up and championed all the time. The attitudes shared about women leaders outside the workplace should reflect the attitudes shared within it.
When talking about women leaders, is the language used inclusive and supportive of them, particularly POC women? Is there perhaps an unconscious bias regarding women leaders (even women can have an unconscious bias against female leaders)?
We need to follow women leaders online and actively discuss their ideas and achievements as much as we do men. We need to foster a supportive space that celebrates women in leadership through words and actions both online and offline?
If organisations are serious about preventing more women from quitting their leadership roles and seeing more women take on the mantle of leadership not just in work but in every sphere of society, they need to actively work to create the kind of environment that will not only make this possible but ideal.
Taking a passive, reactive stance and accepting that the status quo changes slowly is not good enough. Lasting change has to be engineered with purpose. Collectively, organisations need to take a proactive stance and create the change that we want to see, not just within organisations but also within ourselves.