Female leadership: Critical New Challenges

Female leadership: Critical New Challenges

By Emily Napier |

How Organisations Can #ChooseToChallenge to Mitigate Risks


“In times of adversity and change, we really discover who we are and what we’re made of”.

Those were powerful words by Howard Schultz, former CEO of Starbucks. Granted, he certainly didn’t know at the time that a health crisis would cloud the world in ways we could never imagine, nor that his words would hold true today, more than ever before.

In early 2020, female representation in the corporate world was finally heading in a positive direction. In fact, between 2015 and 2020, the share of women in SVP roles grew from 23 – 28% and from 17 to 21% in the C-suite. Women were still considerably underrepresented, but the numbers were slowly improving, and women were making steady progress.

That all changed with the pandemic.

Although it has dramatically changed every aspect of all our lives, forcing us to adapt to a new state of life and behaviour, all without any idea of what the long-term effects will be, the pandemic has played a rather unique role in presenting some distinct challenges to women, in particular mothers, senior-level women and black women.

Some effects were so unique to women in fact, that last year’s Women in the Workplace Study conducted by McKinsey & Company and Lean In.Org, produced some astonishing results, and predicted a rather worrying future for women in business, and organisations alike.  

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The pandemic has intensified challenges that women already face in the workplace. Working mothers have always worked a “double shift”—a full day of work, followed by hours spent caring for children and doing household labour. Now the supports that made this even possible for women—including school and childcare—have been upended.” – Women in the Workplace Study 2020

As a result of the increasing difficulty of mainataining a work-life balance, 1 in 4 women are contemplating downshifting their careers or exiting the workforce. Something many women would have considered unthinkable less than a year ago.

The study also indicates that as many as two million women in America alone, are considering taking a leave of absence or leaving the workforce altogether, and for the first time in recent history, showing signs of women leaving the workforce at higher rates than men. This mass exodus of women means far fewer women in leadership, and far fewer women on track to be future leaders.

In short, all the progress women have painstakingly made in the last decade would be erased.

Childcare and Housework Have Mostly Fallen to Mothers

As Covid-19 wears on, employees struggle to keep up. For working parents—and working mothers in particular—these burdens are even heavier.

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I feel like I am failing at everything. I’m failing at work. I’m failing at my duties as a mom. I’m failing in every single way, because I think what we’re being asked to do is nearly impossible. How can you continue to perform at the same level as in the office when you had no distractions, plus being asked to basically become a teacher for kids and everything else with online learning? I’m doing it all, but at the same time I’m feeling like I’m not doing any of it very well. I also worry that my performance is being judged because I’m caring for my children. If I step away from my virtual desk and I miss a call, are they going to wonder where I am? I feel that I need to always be on and ready to respond instantly to whatever comes in. And if that’s not happening, then that’s going to reflect poorly on my performance.” – VP and mother of two (Ages 7 & 11).

This quote from a mother of two. makes the emotional and mental pressure working mothers are under, poignantly clear.

Decades of research shows that women do significantly more housework and childcare. While mothers working full-time in particular, take on an even heavier load and are often said to be working a “double shift”. For single mothers the challenges are even greater, as they are more likely to be stuck doing all the housework and childcare in their household, and also more likely to feel financially insecure.

The study also emphasises that mothers worry more than fathers about whether their performance will be judged negatively due to their caregiving responsibilities. A majority of these employees feel the pressure to be “always on”, constantly available for work and most often after regular work hours. Which explains why for them several specific challenges take precedence, including childcare, home schooling responsibilities, mental health, and burnout.

Meanwhile, other employees worry about layoffs, furloughs, and financial insecurity. While these factors are liable to harm all employees, once again results show that some groups of women experience certain challenges at higher rates. For example, women in senior leadership feel as though they have to be on work-mode more often, in comparison to men at the same level, in order to maintain a sense of job security.

Together, these challenges highlight that our current workforce is dealing with unsustainable pressure and anxiety.

The impact of Companies Losing Women in Leadership Could Ripple Through the Economy

Across the US in September alone nearly 4.1 million women aged 20 and older dropped out of the U.S. labour force, which is 23% more than the 3.3 million men who left, according to U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics data.

When large numbers of women stop working, it has a broad impact, including financial consequences which could be significant.

Losing a wage earner hurts families in multiple ways. It reduces a woman’s potential earning power and career advancement. Less money is available for necessities or discretionary spending, and as a result affecting her ability to pay her family’s bills, possibly even falling behind on debt or delaying health care. Add to that the inability to save for retirement and college for children, and you have an avalanche on top of a snowstorm, where women are barely keeping their heads above ground.

It also negatively effects the larger economy that needs consumer spending and companies reliant on a skilled workforce, which can be of particular concern as businesses continue to struggle to attract and retain that very workforce.

Additionally, the impact on organisations is multi-fold. Research has shown that companies with women well-represented at the top, are 50% more likely to outperform their peers. Apart from that, senior-level women have a vast and meaningful impact on a company’s culture. They are more likely to embrace employee-friendly policies & programs and champion racial & gender diversity. They’re also more likely to mentor and sponsor other women.

Simply put, if women leaders left the workforce, it would snowball into women at all levels losing their most powerful allies and champions.

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Companies are stepping up—but many aren’t addressing the underlying causes of burnout – Women in the Workplace Study 2020.

Critical Crossroads: A Pivotal Moment to Adopt a Framework for Action

Companies will be facing some grave challenges ahead and there’s two ways to handle it.

They can either recognise the scale of these problems, do all they can to address them by modifying the way they work to make things more flexible and sustainable for everyone. Or fail to do so, and deal with the consequences that could badly hurt women, their business, and the economy as a whole.

This moment requires more than long-term thinking, creativity and strong leadership… it needs a laser focus and understanding about the value of women to their organisations.

So how can companies address the core challenges women are facing? To begin with, steps need to be taken to reduce the additional pressures employees are experiencing.

The study outlines the following six key areas where companies should focus or expand their efforts:

1 – Reset Norms around flexibility

With employees finding it much harder to draw clear lines between work and home, and many feeling like they never really stop working, companies should look for ways to re-establish work-life boundaries.

This means setting new work norms, such as placing set hours for meetings, putting policies in place for email responses beyond typical business hours, as well as improving communication about work hours and availability within teams. Employees should also be encouraged to set their own boundaries and take full advantage of flexible work options. Keep in mind that even when these options are available, some employees fear the stigma attached to using them.

To mitigate this, leaders can uplift employees by informing them that their performance will not be measured based on when, where, or how many hours they work. Leaders can also communicate their support for workplace flexibility, by modelling flexibility in their own lives. When employees are confident that their senior leaders are supportive of their flexibility needs, they are less likely to consider downshifting or leaving.

2 – Make Work More Sustainable

Introduce a sustainable pace at work. Leaders and managers need to look at revaluating productivity and performance expectations set before Covid-19, and question if they’re still realistic.

Additionally, the study suggests finding creative ways to give employees extra time off.

For example, some companies have offered “Covid-19 days” to give parents a time to prepare for the new school year, while others chose to close shop for a few Fridays each quarter, giving everyone a much-needed break to recharge.

3 – Take a Close Look at Performance Reviews

In any organisation, performance reviews are a vital part of effective management, as well as rewarding employees for their contributions. Yet, with the sudden shift to remote work and the heightened challenges employees are coping with, performance criteria set before Covid-19 may no longer be suitable.

Managers can refocus on key priorities—by reassessing performance criteria set prior to the pandemic, to make sure they are still attainable. By aligning the criteria with what employees can reasonably achieve, managers may help to prevent burnout and anxiety, and ultimately lead to better performance and higher productivity.

4 – Take Steps to Minimize Gender Bias

Unfortunately, due to Covid-19 and WFH, bias has taken on a new face. When managers and team members have less visibility into their colleagues’ day-to-day work, it is more likely for assumptions to be made about their performance, increasing the chance of bias creeping in, such as judgmental comments made about children playing in the background during video calls or co-workers assuming, consciously or unconsciously, that working mothers are less committed to their jobs.

To mitigate these biases, companies need to make sure that employees are aware of them. Leaders and employees should be outspoken about the potential impact of bias during Covid-19. Bias training can also help. And finally, tracking outcomes for promotions and raises by gender—as well as the breakdown of layoffs and furloughs by gender can help to make sure women and men are being treated fairly.

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We really need to change the definition of what performing strongly means this year. A woman on my team asked me, ’How is this all going to impact my ability to get promoted? Is the fact that I have children at home and I have to divide my time, will that hurt my chances of getting promoted?’ I want to say, ’No, it’s not going to hurt you.’ But how do I put that into action? In reality, it may hurt her chances when she is up against a man who didn’t have to deal with any of that. ”  – VP, Financial Services Industry

5 – Adjust Policies and Programs to Better Support Employees

Organisations need to determine how effectively they are addressing the biggest challenges faced by employees and reallocate resources to the programs that are most valuable.

Many companies have extended policies and programs to support employees during Covid-19, from offering more paid time-off, to providing resources for home schooling. Employees should be made aware of the full range of benefits available to them, as there could be a significant gap between what companies offer and what employees are aware of.

For example, most companies offer some form of mental health counselling, but only about half of employees are actually aware that counselling is available to them. The same goes for other programs such as parenting resources, health checks, and bereavement counselling.

6 – Strengthen Employee Communication

In the current climate it is critical to maintain open and frequent communication with employees. 1 in 5 employees have consistently felt uninformed or in the dark during Covid-19, suggesting that companies should share more regular updates on the state-of-the-business and key decisions that affect employees’ work and lives.

When employees are caught off-guard by decisions that impact their work, they are three times more likely to be unhappy in their job. It’s also critical that leaders and HR teams communicate with empathy, so employees feel valued and understood. Research shows that this kind of openness and understanding builds trust among employees and drastically reduces anxiety.

The Road to Progress: A Starting Point for a More Empathetic Workplace

With companies now rethinking fundamental beliefs about remote work, there are early signs that remote work can help level the playing field. 93% of companies now say more jobs can be performed remotely, and 67% predict a significant share of their employees will regularly work remotely in the future.

Mental health and well-being are now a much higher priority in the face of this crisis. Employees have more visibility and a better understanding of what’s going on in one another’s personal lives. Companies in turn say that the crisis has created a feeling of solidarity and fostered empathy and understanding among employees.

Together, these lead to an increased focus on supporting employees as “whole people.” And when employees feel whole, good things happen. They are happier with their job, more optimistic about their company’s commitment to gender equality, and less likely to leave the workforce.

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We made it very clear to our associates from the beginning of the pandemic that our first priority was their health and safety. And we offered extended sick leave and family leave. We heard from associates that it really made a difference. It alleviated a lot of anxieties they were feeling. What seems like a simple policy change really has far-reaching power to support our employees.” Chief Transformation Officer, Technology Industry

Companies have shown a growing commitment to gender diversity in the last 5 years. Maintaining that commitment is now essential in the climate we are heading towards. If companies use this pivotal moment to take bold action, they can protect hard-won gains in their business and diversity, laying the foundation for a better workplace and culture long after Covid-19.



Emily Napier
Head of People, Performance and Culture


Solution Partner

Australia | United Kingdom | North America | Canada

Turner & Townsend is a multinational professional services company headquartered in the United Kingdom, with 111 offices in 45 countries. They specialize in program, project and cost management and consulting across the property, infrastructure and natural resources sectors.

They offer tried and tested systems and processes for the analysis, planning and monitoring of projects, to deliver faster, cheaper, safer and more efficient working practices and better results overall. Thus, helping clients strengthen their business or investment case, grow stakeholder engagement, or make difficult choices at any stage of a project’s lifecycle.