Striving for Gender Balance in the C-Suite
By Donna Padilla
The economic shocks and aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic have a lot of organizations hunkering down and refocusing on the essentials of their businesses. This often means that issues of diversity such as the advancement of women’s leadership—especially in the C-suite and boardroom—get placed on the back burner. The implication is that greater representation of women in leadership roles is a “nice to have,” but not something we can worry about now.
This is the wrong approach. For one thing, women may be particularly well-suited to manage the impacts of the coronavirus. An argument has been made that women-led nations have handled the pandemic better than those led by men, challenging the notion that “a strong leader is one who conforms to the swaggering ideals of masculinity.”
Quite the opposite, some experts hypothesize that feminine qualities—compassion, humility, collaboration—are especially relevant in addressing a crisis like the current pandemic. In a time when all employees are stressed, these qualities can help put colleagues at ease.
Plus, there is strength in leadership diversity. According to McKinsey, executive teams that are gender diverse are 21% more likely to see above-average profitability. Diversity provides a competitive advantage, especially during a crisis. There is strategic value in having many voices, many types of leaders and leadership behaviors.
From the perspective of an executive recruiter, there are several ways that C-suites can continue to support and advance women leaders in the COVID-19 era.
Look beyond the volunteers
Men are more likely than women to raise their hands for special projects and committees—which have been common during the pandemic—even when they may not be the most qualified for the task. Women tend to deliberate more and not immediately raise their hands. (Once they do, they do so confidently and without hesitation.) To counter this, organizations in crisis must ensure they get input from various parties and actively engage and seek leadership not just among the hand-raisers, but among those truly qualified to think and act wisely during a crisis.
Nominate more women
Jeffrey Schroetlin and Joyce De Leo, Ph.D., in our Academic Medicine and Health Sciences Practice recently conducted informal research on how men and women responded to job inquiries for dean of medicine positions. If contacted by a search consultant, they learned, a man is twice as likely to express interest in a position than a woman; however, if a woman is nominated by a colleague, that difference disappears. The lesson: Organizations can reach out to top women in their ranks and nominate them for key roles. They can also develop active networks that include women who will then be more likely to nominate other women and diverse individuals.
Continue to provide career resources
A few years ago, WittKieffer surveyed executives from the healthcare industry on their career development aims and practices. We discovered women were more likely than men to take advantage of career development and training opportunities within their organizations because they believed it would better prepare them for senior leadership roles. Additionally, most women surveyed said that formal talent development strategies—such as succession planning, mentoring, coaching, and board service—had a positive impact on their personal career development. Therefore, especially for women, organizations can continue to provide meaningful career development opportunities even in times of budget tightening.
Experts suggest the COVID-19 era, with many professionals working more hours from home and often taking care of children who are also home, has put a greater burden on working women. Ensure that your leaders, women or men, have support for family needs and the ability to work in a way that suits their schedule and still provides your organization with the ability to tap into their expertise.
Coach your hiring managers and search committees
Women are often disadvantaged in the hiring process. Even in this day and age, hiring managers are enamored by job candidates who present themselves as confident and brash, though their credentials may not justify it. Be sure to ask the tough questions in an interview and listen carefully for substance rather than style. Confidence is important in leadership, but women may carry a confidence that is more inward than external. Make sure hiring managers and committees are educated in how implicit biases can cause them to misread candidates and favor men over women.
Despite years of gender inequity, women have been making steady and necessary progress in leadership. More women are now CEOs, and finally all S&P 500 companies have at least one woman board member. That being said, we have progress yet to make if we are to even approach a balance. Let’s not let the pendulum swing back in the wrong direction as we continue to address the repercussions of the pandemic.
Donna Padilla is managing partner and leader of the Healthcare Practice at WittKieffer, a global executive search firm dedicated exclusively to organizations that improve quality of life in healthcare, education, the life sciences and the not-for-profit sector.