The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us one clear, valuable lesson. Women make great leaders, and empowering women to lead makes sense — in any setting — for many reasons.
Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand; K.K. Shailaja, the minister of health and social welfare of Kerala state in India; and Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, undeniably demonstrated leadership success by managing and controlling the pandemic response in their respective countries. Yet one underlying problem remains. Lingering structural disparities and systemic issues continue to cause our societies to value men over women, leaving few women in national leadership roles.
Empowering Women Remains Low on the Priority List
The reasons behind this are complex. Many cultures simply do not permit women to enter leadership positions. In other settings, societal pressures and expectations prevent women from having the confidence to do so. Yet empowering women is necessary so that their communities benefit from the full potential of their leadership. If we are to build up and promote women in the workplace, our efforts must begin at home.
Even in the 21st century, many societies still feel that a woman’s primary role is that of homemaker. There is an expectation that women will put their careers on hold. Professional duties are expected to suffer in favor of familial responsibilities. Women often have to cover a “second work shift” to balance their paying job with housework. Pulling double-duty often forces many women to ultimately sacrifice either their family or their career.
In the truest sense of the word, empowerment means giving women opportunities for success that are equal to those of men. Companies must focus on developing strategic plans and concrete mechanisms to provide equal access to leadership opportunities. Such changes would play a crucial role in enabling women to boost their self-confidence through their actions and achievements.
Empowering Women Is Good for Business
Studies have shown that having a diverse workforce confers enormous benefits. A recent Catalyst study, for example, states that the financial performance of businesses that have a higher proportion of women as part of their top management teams exceeds that of companies with fewer women in upper management roles. Actively hiring and promoting more women is often seen as some sort of capitulation to culture but it improves a company’s bottom line.
There are other ways to make the corporate sector more welcoming to women. One is to actively encourage our young women to pursue corporate careers. Companies can position women leaders as brand representatives, thereby demonstrating to young women that being a consultant, an entrepreneur, or a CEO, for example, are all very achievable goals.
An ongoing commitment to this kind of representation will help young women have faith in themselves and their dreams and provide needed encouragement to pursue them. It will also help women define their future goals, a necessary part of becoming a successful leader in the future.
The Need to Address Long-Standing Disparities
Additionally, empowering women means that we must address and remedy the lingering pay gap between men and women in the corporate sector. A study by PayScale showed that, even in 2020, women earned $0.81 for every dollar earned by a man. To overcome systemic discrimination in compensation, women need and deserve strategic support.
They also need support to overcome discrepancies when raising families. For example, a report by PwC stated that, after returning to the workplace, 48% of new mothers felt they had been passed over for novel projects and promotions. Companies can and must address these concerns — and do so effectively — when overhauling long-term planning and strategies.
Addressing Legitimate Safety Concerns in the Workplace
Companies also have a responsibility to make their events and activities more accessible to all employees equally. Women who commute via public transportation must often consider the safety risks of staying after hours to work. Socializing with coworkers might also require them to return home alone late at night.
Inadequately addressing safety concerns renders certain company events “unattendable,” which typically harms career progression. The expectation that women be “more family-oriented” can make attending late-night meetings and covering evening shifts a struggle. Jobs that involve significant travel impose a similar burden. Providing transportation services and flexible work hours would help address many of these “hidden” obstacles to success.
Empowering Women Means Zero Tolerance for Harassment
Companies must also create safe spaces within the workplace to help women feel secure in their places of employment. This is of particular importance living in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which highlighted the stunning frequency of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Women’s lack of trust in the companies and institutions they work for discourages them from coming forward and speaking publicly about negative experiences. Every work environment must offer adequate safety measures to protect employees from sexual harassment.
It can also help to establish and support a board or committee specifically designed to address women’s concerns. These bodies should be composed of women and legal representation. Trust is more easily established with those who need to report an incident when it’s clear that it’s taken seriously. Managers, HR professionals, and all first-contact persons for employees must also be well trained. Take extra steps to ensure the creation of an empathetic, sensitive environment for those wishing to address issues of sexual harassment.
Moving Steadily Toward a Healthier Workforce
The efforts outlined above represent a solid starting point for valuing and empowering women as a means for giving them confidence in the workplace. As Michelle Obama rightly said, “There is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish.” Companies must take concrete steps if they hope to tap into the full potential of their female employees. Only when strategies such as these are implemented will the workforce see more and more women in positions of real leadership.