Diversity & Inclusion

When Women Lead: Covid-19 reflections on International Women’s Day

Lydia Watson

Long-held stereotypes can be a big barrier to progression. Like the old riddle about the doctor who can’t operate on her son, all of us make certain assumptions about the type of people that should lead, manage, or even operate on us. So until there are more women in senior and leader positions, we should keep on making a noise about it.

And it’s a conversation worth having. Beyond workplace equality being the right thing to push towards, it also shows customers, investors, and employees what kind of organisation you are.

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Gender equality in business: how are we doing?

A few years back, a survey found that 2/3rds of British men believe women now have equal opportunities. How right (or wrong) are they, when it comes to business?

  • The good news: some progress has been made –  a recent report saw 34.3% of board members are now women, meeting a one third target. Some sectors have seen further success too, with women in academia the first to achieve pay parity.
  • The bad news: In 2019, just 18% of senior executives in Europe were women – despite making up almost half of the workforce. Women are also hugely outnumbered in entry-level management, causing a “broken rung” that impacts progression.

In other words, we’re getting there – but it’s slow progress. But finding ways to have a more equal leadership team is well worth doing, for multiple reasons.

Women leaders and the pandemic

‘Women in leadership’ became a hot topic in the last year, in relation to the different responses countries had to the global pandemic. Before we talk about why, here’s a few of the women who made the headlines:

1. Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand

New Zealand’s response was fast, and strict. Lockdowns came early, and those entering the country were made to self-isolate – even when cases were very low. To date, they have just 26 recorded deaths. Ardern’s decisiveness was praised, with her later saying the decision was the result of realising their health system could not survive a ‘flatten the curve’ approach.

2. Tsai Ing-wen, President of Taiwan

Fast action was key in Taiwan, too. Even in the midst of a re-election campaign, her government soon began taking and preparing 124 crucial actions – from setting up quarantine protocols to closing borders. By January, mask wearing was already routine in many areas. The result was drastically reduced cases, to the point that Taiwan was said to be one of the few economies likely to experience growth.

3. Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Prime Minister of Iceland

Iceland’s Prime Minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, has also been praised for offering free coronavirus testing and thorough tracking – leading to Iceland being rated as one of the top 14 safest countries. It’s still holding up against variants too, thanks to stringent border controls, visitor self-isolation schemes, and recording all cases.

4. Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland

Striking one for younger leaders, Sanna Marin used savvy in getting social media influencers to help spread information about the pandemic – so less were left ill-informed. Faced with coronavirus just four months into her tenure, she’s kept the death rate notably low – alongside the four women leaders she is in coalition with. Here, good communication was key.

5. Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway

Erna Solberg’s children-only press conference was one for the headlines, where young people could bring their fears and concerns to be addressed. This empathetic focus on communication likely played a part in unifying a scared nation, young or old – and she also co-chairs the ACT-Accelerator conference, which focuses on fast-forwarding the development and distribution of tests, vaccines, and treatment.

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There are outliers, of course – like Angela Merkel who openly communicated to Germany in the initial stages that up to 70% would be infected, and is now troubled by vaccine difficulties. Sophie Wilmès is also used as an example, due to Belgium’s high death rate – though this could be impacted by the tendency of women-led countries to test more people, and the fact that Belgium recorded nursing home deaths and suspected related cases while many did not.

The takeaway: women leadership is a good start

So what’s our point? This isn’t proof women aren’t ‘worse’ leaders, or even that they’re better than men. Indeed, as there are so few women premiers (in one sample, just 10% of countries had women leaders) there just isn’t enough data – which says something in itself.  It may not even fall to ‘female vs. male’ traits – despite much discussion around whether communication, empathy, and prioritising health over economic interest had a part to play.

But what this successful crisis management could be telling us is about the people, cultures, and governments that result in women being in power. That some countries have the right values in place for women leaders to be elected, and succeed –  with positive outcomes for all.

That’s why ‘one and done’ boardrooms aren’t enough, and why getting to that “tipping point” of a third of women in power is just the start. Because when your organisation isn’t representative of society at all levels, an all-male leadership team is just a symptom of a bigger problem you need to tackle: inclusion.

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