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Caroline Whaley, co-founder of Shine For Women, looks at how the post-pandemic landscape could benefit female leaders.

What actions should businesses be taking to increase the number of women in their senior management?

What we’ve learned, through supporting more than 10,000 women, is that you have to put the work in helping women build their confidence. If you’re not helping women feel more confident about what they’re doing and enabling them to play a bigger game within the organisation, then it doesn’t matter what else you put in place.

A lot of it is based on self-awareness – building clarity around what makes you tick as an individual. We do a lot of work around personal values, so women really understand what their non-negotiables are. Once people stop living by compromised values, they start to become more authentic, more influential, and everything else that will help them grow.

The other area that is vital is creating strong connections. As women, we’re very good at building allies around us personally, but we don’t do it so much at work. You need to be very clear on who can help you, who can support you, as well as the stakeholders that you have to build relationships with.

Organisations also need to understand that the top doesn’t look that appealing for a lot of women. When a lot of women look up, they find it difficult to see people who look like them. So it’s really hard to see themselves up there. It’s just not aspirational.

That’s why we see a lot of women leave at a certain level in the organisation. Companies will recruit 50/50, then all of a sudden, there’s a cliff where women drop off, where women are saying: “I don’t want to be there. That’s not what I aspire to.” But we can create a different style of leadership at the top. You don’t have to go to the top and become what that top looks like now.

Diversity means embracing different styles of leadership. It’s never been more important than it is now. Organisations have to transform and become more creative, we need that kind of diversity and leadership, promoting different people who don’t fit the traditional mould.

As well as different leadership styles, we’ve seen different working practices developing over the past 12 months. Are these likely to benefit women’s long-term career trajectories, or have we also seen a backward step?

Things like flexible working will absolutely work for women, particularly around managing their time more efficiently, and the lack of commuting. Having more control over their time has been really beneficial. There is no excuse to argue against flexible working anymore. Where there is a danger, if we move into a hybrid way of working in the future, is a culture of presenteeism returning. Research shows men are much more eager to get back to an office space than women are, and that presenteeism versus remote working could backfire and leave remote workers overlooked.

This is not the time to go back to normal but to embrace hybrid ways of working that retain the benefits without a backlash.

Hybrid working: the new normal
Hybrid working: the new normal
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Is there an onus on businesses to make that work?

Onus is a heavy word. This comes down to things like inclusion and belonging. Those organisations that are really listening to their staff are the ones that will come through this. A working style where people have more control over their lives will become more important. Younger generations absolutely want it, and organisations would be crazy not to embrace that.

Have you seen a flattening out of office hierarchies with a more ‘We’re all in it together’ approach? Does this represent a more flexible management structure that might benefit women in the future?

Seeing into people’s lives has definitely flattened hierarchies to some degree. Organisations are at a point of choice now. They can decide that’s the way they’re going to go forward. If they’ve seen benefits more flexible approaches, then why wouldn’t they continue? As someone said to me recently, this is not the time to return to factory settings.

The pandemic has catalysed all the changes that organisations were talking about making. It’s a fantastic moment in time to make that shift once and for all before we all come out the other side.

This window of opportunity has been thrust upon us, but might the diversity and inclusion agenda have slipped off the radar for businesses that are just trying to survive?

In the beginning, it was a cost-cutting exercise. People were firefighting. D&I went, along with leadership training and employee engagement, as survival mode kicked in. But we have seen that completely shift in recent months. The rise in awareness around mental health challenges and loneliness has thrown employers’ responsibilities into stark relief.

We’re seeing clients who put D&I work on hold coming back with a vengeance. There was talk about gender equality being set back 10 years. What happened, without doubt, is that women suffered more in the first half of the pandemic through job losses and furloughing.

There was a short-term danger – but now inclusivity is back on the agenda, I don’t believe women’s careers have to be set back that far. We can come back if we embrace flexible working and a more inclusive style of leadership.

With a workforce that’s been remote for so long, do you think there’s a risk that people might be falling out of sight?

We’ve all learned that face-to-face human connection is a vital part of who we are, which is why I think it’s very unlikely that companies will go completely remote. People will become more discerning about when they need to come together for collaboration, for creativity. But do you need to write a report sitting in an office? No, you don’t.

One thing we’ve learned is that when we bring together smaller groups of people to talk about what really matters to them on a video call, we can still create incredible connections. You have to curate it carefully and give them time and space. When you physically can’t see each other, you need to invest in people more than ever.

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According to Grant Thornton’s Women in Business research, leaders believe that COVID-19 has driven a change in the way people work that will have a lasting effect on the ability of women to pursue ambitious career paths. But continuing on a positive trajectory will require deliberate action from leaders. Take a look at our latest report to explore the actions being taken by businesses.

A window of opportunity
A window of opportunity
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