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Annie Warshaw, co-founder of Mission Propelle, a job security consulting firm for women, discusses the changing landscape for women in senior leadership, and how more can follow in their footsteps.

We’re seeing a change in the roles held by women globally around the world, with more operational positions. What’s driving this?

Women have leadership roles now because of long-term strategic thinking and planning for the past several decades by different agencies, including women themselves. There are so many organisations that do training specifically for women and mentorship programmes to help them achieve those statuses.

As the pandemic has shown us, women still do the majority of ‘housework’. Because of that, there have to be shifts in how we view accessing those roles. The accommodations that have been made thus far are not enough and don’t fit the reality of women’s lives.

We’ve seen an increase in out-of-office working through the pandemic. Do you think that has benefited some women and their potential career paths? Does it also have a benefit for businesses?

What businesses are deeming flexible isn’t necessarily actual flexibility. In fact, what we’re seeing with the clients we work with is that with employees being at home, some companies feel they have complete, unfiltered access to their staff at all times.

Now women are feeling the need to answer and respond at all times of the day because the boundaries have been blurred – and, on top of that, they’re taking care of their kids. It’s definitely happening for both sides. Dads are experiencing that, too, but the inequities that existed before the pandemic have been amplified – women are the ones shouldering most of that burden.

When we talk about flexibility, we need to be incredibly clear as to what that means. If it means being very specific on the hours you will and won’t work, exactly when you’ll answer emails, when you’ll do meetings – that’s one way to set those boundaries. Some workplaces are recognising that those boundaries need to be laid, while from others there’s a superficial acknowledgement that this is hard, but no real shifts have happened in terms of how the workplace is approaching ‘flexibility’.

Hybrid working: the new normal
Hybrid working: the new normal
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Having shown that it’s possible to work in different ways, might there be greater open-mindedness towards real flexible working going forward?

There are so many benefits to both men and women that I hope companies recognise. Working from home a few days per week actually increases productivity, which increases revenue and brings happiness and more balance to families if they’re given the support they need to do it well.

If staff are staying at home two days per week and cutting out their commute – and, for working parents, maybe getting an extra two hours of quality time with the kids – it’s of huge benefit to the employee. But if companies fill that entire day with meetings – and, because they’re not commuting, add an extra three hours of work to an employee’s day – then it doesn’t really benefit that employee. It’s about understanding what flexibility has to look like so everyone benefits from it.

If people aren’t physically present in the office, how can their leaders make sure they’re still being seen and valued?

There’s a lot that needs to be done around communication. If you’re really intentional about team building, whether you’re physically with the person or not, the outcome is the same. Making communication incredibly clear at all levels is one way to make sure everyone feels included. You can create a community by being transparent. Let the team know: “here’s what we plan to do for the future, and why”.

That can happen in a number of ways. Mentorship programmes don’t have to be in person –you can have a really robust online mentorship programme. You don’t need to physically be there. Creating training, sponsoring education and thinking strategically about the leaders that are currently in the company and how they’re building relationships with more junior-level employees – you don’t need to be sitting next to each other in a boardroom to make these things happen.

I’d advise leaders to be mindful and respectful of everyone else’s time because if you’re already overburdening your employees, it’s really hard to build inclusivity. Reserve a day for meetings, and make one of those meetings a team-building mentorship situation. You’re not losing much work time, and you’re still saying: “I see you. I want you as a part of this team.”

Changing leadership in 2021 and beyond
Changing leadership in 2021 and beyond
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What other things can businesses do to create an inclusive culture?

Redefine what productivity means. For so long, productivity meant being at a physical location from nine to five. We need to move away from that mindset to more project-based work and recognise outcomes versus the time spent.

In terms of having a diverse range of leadership, ultimately, if you have leaders that look like the actual staff, they’re going to come with a different thought process and mindset because they’ve experienced different prejudices or challenges. They’re going to also come with new and creative ideas.

Do you see an opportunity to make diversity and inclusion a much bigger part of the business landscape?

In the US specifically, there needs to be overall policy shift. For example, we don’t have paid family leave as a federal policy. That’s problematic, and t has proven really difficult for families, especially during the pandemic – not just for childcare, but also for taking care of elderly parents or sick family members.

We need this if we want to create a sustainable culture of flexibility in the workplace, which ultimately would benefit women greatly because they can take on those senior positions and not have to ask: “Do I continue on this career path and never see my family, or do I need to leave this career path so that I can see my family?”

There is the opportunity to allow for both because of the shifts that have already happened. Data shows that some men are recognising that their house was really inequitable and are stepping up to the plate. Women have support in a new way. Companies are also recognising we can be productive without staff being physically present. If you combine all that, there is an opportunity to give women more space to grow in their careers, which ultimately keeps companies from losing really important voices.

There is an opportunity to do this. There are policies on the table around childcare and paid family leave – easy, low-hanging fruit policies that need to happen to support women. Healthcare is a huge barrier to making all of this work, but I do think people have been awakened to the inequality of the situation, because it’s impossible to ignore. When people become awakened, we always have opportunity to make change.

Discover more

According to Grant Thornton’s Women in Business research, 45% of mid-market business leaders believe new working practices as a result of Covid-19 will impact women negatively in the immediate term. Conscious action by leaders will determine the direction of travel from here. Take a look at our latest report to explore the impact of Covid-19 on the D&I landscape.

A window of opportunity
A window of opportunity
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