The annual celebration of International Women’s Day always invokes talk of change, whether it’s the progress that’s been made in advancing female rights and representation over the years or the extent of the work still to be done. But it’s not often that International Women’s Day comes around at a time when the world is undergoing seismic, existential changes of the kind that only come around every hundred years or so.
The pandemic is the most obvious and direct example that’s changed the way we work. After over two years of successive waves that necessitated social distancing and stay-at-home orders, the office will never be the same again. Whether or not we as individuals like or dislike home working has become irrelevant – two years, remote or hybrid working is now the new normal. The idea of entire workforces undertaking a gruelling commute to sit at a desk and work on a laptop as efficiently as they could at home already seems to be part of a bygone era.
Only thirty percent of British businesses expect to have their whole workforce back on-site within the following year. We can safely assume many, if not all, of these will be in industries that require a physical presence in at least some of their workforce.
However, it’s not just logistical attitudes to work that are changing right now. Over the course of the pandemic, something shifted in our collective consciousness regarding the environment. Research from Boston Consulting Group across eight countries found that around 70% of people reported a heightened awareness of the impact of human activity on climate change. This shift is becoming more evident in how we do business, with ESG now taking center stage on boardroom agendas. It’s also changing the shape of executive teams, with more Chief Sustainability Officers hired in 2020 than in the previous three years combined.
Riding the Changes
As leaders grapple with how to make sense of this ever-shifting landscape, many have taken the opportunity to make long-term changes. A transition towards more flexible working arrangements in the long term may entail leaders having to think differently about how work gets done. But there’s a recognition that employees want the quality of life that comes with being able to self-determine where and how they work.
This shift benefits everyone, but particularly for women, it offers an opportunity to change paradigms and begin to address the representation gap in leadership and key roles. It’s not simply about the somewhat simplistic idea that if women can work flexibly, they can better multi-task their domestic responsibilities. It’s about addressing some of the more insidious and deep-rooted biases that act as barriers to female representation in leadership and key positions.
For example, the idea that women taking time off for maternity leave creates an absence in the workplace that allows men to accelerate past them on the career ladder. In a workplace that places a lower priority on physical presence, this “absence” takes on far less significance and actually makes it easier for parents on maternity or paternity leave to maintain a meaningful connection.
So as you can see, if we’re to use this current period of discontinuity to address representation issues, it requires a different kind of leadership and a mindset shift regarding how work gets done. Leaders need to craft a culture that optimises for different ways of working to be as inclusive as possible.
Doing so will create opportunities across the board, but particularly for women, it’s a chance to begin to address the gap in representation at the senior level. For firms, it’s an unprecedented chance to unlock the potential that women in leadership can bring, using inclusivity as a strategic tool to promote growth, innovation, and performance.
Creating an inclusive culture isn’t something that happens overnight or without a sustained, committed effort to drive change. We’ve identified five principles based on decades of helping companies craft cultures that support their performance goals. Firstly, leaders need to draw a clear line between business priorities and DEI objectives, which includes the strategic advantages of increasing female representation in leadership and other key roles and functions.
Secondly, leaders need to effect personal change, identifying their own biases and blind spots and being open about how their mindsets have shifted.
Next, the changes need to be disseminated throughout the organisation in a program of broad engagement, and there needs to be an exercise to attain systemic alignment to inclusivity across all policies, processes, and practices.
The final principle is representation – employees from all groups need to be able to look out across the workforce and see themselves reflected at all levels.
So this International Women’s Day can be about more than just talking about change. We’re all living a change right now, so let’s seize the chance to bring about a meaningful transformation that breaks down the remaining barriers for women in the workplace and supports a more inclusive organisation overall.
Dustin W. Seale is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ London office and managing partner of Heidrick Consulting in Europe. He focuses on CEO and board advisory, specifically on improving leadership and talent, and transforming organizations through culture.
This article appeared in World Biz Magazine's Q2, 2022 Issue