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Human Resources

How leaders in gender equality think differently 

Published 7 June 2022 in Human Resources • 7 min read • Audio availableAudio available

What does it take to be genuinely inclusive in the post-pandemic workplace? 

The pandemic may be receding, but it has reshaped the world of work for good. As many organizations settle into permanent remote or hybrid working, the lasting impact of this period of change is becoming clear: it has taken a significant toll on women’s wellbeing and career progression.  

These are the findings of Deloitte’s new study, Women @ Work 2022: A Global Outlook, which explored women’s experiences in the workplace following COVID-19. The study shows that women – and especially LGBT+ women and women in ethnic-minority groups – have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, experiencing widespread burnout, rising stress levels, increased harassment and more microaggressions. 

The Deloitte study finds that women are more likely to be looking for a new role than they were a year ago, with nearly 40% actively looking for a new employer because of ongoing burnout. Although more employers are offering flexible working arrangements, 90% of women believe that if they request this their workloads won’t be adjusted accordingly, and 94% fear it would affect their likelihood of promotion. In total, almost half feel less optimistic about their career opportunities than they did a year ago. 

But it’s not all bad news: the data also uncovered a group of ‘gender equality leaders’ – companies that are giving women equal opportunities for development, supporting their mental wellbeing, and actively fostering inclusive cultures. Women who work for these leaders report much higher levels of trust, engagement and productivity, and are more motivated to stay with their employer longer than three years. 

So, what makes a leader in gender equality, and how do these organizations think differently about their workforce? 

LGBT+ women and women in ethnic-minority groups – have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic

Affirmative or performative? 

There isn’t one silver bullet. Just like racial inequality, gender inequality is systemic. So creating an inclusive culture needs to be addressed at multiple levels and it needs to be connected – with a clear direction and tone set from the top. 

Over the course of my research, I have come to understand the difference between companies that are genuinely inclusive and those that are just paying lip service to the idea. All too often, employers will focus their gender equality efforts on recruitment, without following it up with the right working practices. Others don’t even get this far. If you have a CEO who sees the strategic value of hiring more women but does not actually invest in recruiting or retaining them, then you are going wrong. 

It is important to have people at the top who understand what is at stake for their organization and what the opportunities are, and can talk about this in ways that resonate with others. So, if your CEO is not fully invested in gender equality (or is only interested to the extent of checking boxes or not being sued), any efforts by the rest of the organization will not get very far. 

Some companies fall short because they introduce gender equality initiatives that have good intentions but do not deliver results. Some may even have unintended consequences that damage women’s advancement opportunities or contribute to their burnout.  

For instance, research shows that women are often called upon to represent their companies in various diversity committees, commissions, and conferences where they perform extra work and emotional labor that is not always recognized in their overall job efforts. Women may feel compelled to help to improve the workplace, but this ‘invisible’ work is often not named or recognised or rewarded. And if it leads to no real changes in your organization, it can be extremely demoralizing – which then adds to feelings of burnout. 

“Women are often called upon to represent their companies in various diversity committees, commissions, and conferences where they perform extra work and emotional labor that is not always recognized in their overall job efforts.”

The burnout battle 

The burnout women experience in the workplace is following them to the home, where they still take on the majority of caregiving responsibilities. While many have benefitted from the rise in flexible working that came with the pandemic, others have struggled to maintain boundaries between work and home.  

That struggle gets harder when employers do not make it clear where and how they expect their people to work – something experienced by 64% of hybrid workers Deloitte surveyed. Further research finds that many of the ‘protective policies’ designed to combat a culture of long working hours actually reinforce the gendered work/family split and take women off the path to promotion. More effort at understanding differences in people’s willingness and ability to manage the boundaries between work and home could be helpful in reducing burnout.  

There are other drawbacks to flexible working, too: the Deloitte study found that 45% of women in hybrid roles felt they did not have enough exposure to senior leaders, and 58% felt excluded from meetings or interactions. It’s clear many women are feeling disadvantaged by this new way of working. To understand why that is, it’s important to consider the biases that are at play.  

One question to ask is who gets these opportunities for flexibility. Often, men are praised and seen as exceptional fathers if they ask for this flexibility, whereas many women feel it draws unwarranted attention to their competence. They might be just as able to work flexibly, but they do not feel they can afford to because their company or supervisors might see them as less committed. 

It’s no wonder that a major study by McKinsey found the gap between men and women’s burnout levels had nearly doubled in the year since the pandemic, with one in three women considering downsizing their careers or leaving the workforce entirely.

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Lessons from the leaders

Deloitte’s gender equality leaders show us there is another way. These companies represent around 5% of women’s employers, and the women working for them report far more positive experiences: 87% say they get adequate mental health support from their employer, and the same percentage feel comfortable talking about their mental health at work. Just 3% feel burned out, compared with 81% of women who work for the lagging organizations. 

What are the leaders in gender equality doing differently? There are many different factors at play here, but it ultimately comes down to one simple question: What is the purpose of your diversity initiative?  

It’s striking how few companies can answer this question. To be an employer of choice for women, business leaders have to first be able to connect diversity goals with their firm’s strategic objectives. But when asked why they promote gender equality, many executives will simply relay their directive to reduce bias or improve women’s representation – without any real understanding of where this fits in the bigger picture. They tend to reiterate the mantra that “diversity improves performance,” a claim that rigorous academic research, including my own, has shown to be overly simplistic and tenuous.  

Some women have struggled to maintain boundaries between work and home

Leaders in gender equality, on the other hand, can articulate exactly why they are working towards gender equality and what it means for their organizations. They know the demographic limitations of their workforce. They understand that by not being gender equal they are losing out on top talent. And they are invested in getting the best people on board and making their workplaces inclusive so that they can retain the women they recruit. 

They also understand that the work doesn’t stop there. Gender equality leaders also:  

  • Actively reward diversity and hold themselves accountable when they do not meet standards 
  • Create opportunities for people to report concerns and get them heard 
  • Make space for LGBT+ women and women in ethnic-minority groups and work with them to identify best career paths. 
  • Regularly evaluate their workforce to ensure the organization is moving in the right direction. 
  • Are willing to learn and make changes to what work is carried out and how it is conducted, so that the entire organization can become more effective. 

Crucially, leaders in gender equality are transparent about their goals. This is essential. Management need to constantly communicate with the rest of the organization about diversity and why gender equality is important. They bring it up on a regular basis and do not assume that everyone is on the same page. 

You can have an enlightened CEO who genuinely wants gender equality, who wants to learn from women and increase representation, but that is no good unless others down the line can articulate why they are doing this. To make meaningful change, you need to get everyone on board and show how gender equality means that everybody wins. 


Corinne Post

Visiting Faculty at IMD

Corinne Post is Visiting Faculty at IMD, where she directs the Inclusive Leadership Program. Her research addresses questions related to diversity and diversity management, notably on women and boards and in top management teams. It also examines the role of diversity as enabler or impediment to group and organizational performance.

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