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Women need a fair chance to lead post pandemic

Published 15 December 2021 in Leadership • 7 min read

The traits that define great’ leadership need to be degendered: empathy, humility and vulnerability are among the qualities required now. 

As we head towards a new year, the working world feels as if it is slowly emerging from close to two years of turmoil. But it’s definitely not a return to normal: the 2021 Edelman Trust barometer identifies “a failing trust ecosystem leaving the four institutions – business, government, NGOs and media – in an environment of information bankruptcy”. It makes for sobering reading. The pandemic has heightened the urgency of addressing problems across so many aspects of society: from healthcare to education, poverty to climate change, misinformation to discrimination and racism. The list goes on.

Trust in business may be at its lowest in nearly a decade but, nonetheless, CEOs are expected to fill the gaps left by governments, taking the lead on tackling these issues and making themselves visibly accountable for doing so, not just to their employees and shareholders, but to the public too. All of which makes the job of any CEO today both more complex and more urgent.

These challenges aren’t likely to go away in the post pandemic world. If the Edelman study tells us anything, it’s that we need leaders who understand how to rebuild trust, rather than assuming it is naturally bestowed on those in authority and power.  And I think that argues for a very different set of leadership attributes from those we have typically valued and rewarded. These comprise empathy, vulnerability, humility, integrity and collaboration (see box).

Full disclosure, I write this as President of WACL (Women in Advertising and Communications Leadership), a UK-based non-profit with a mission to accelerate gender equality for the benefit of all. And yes, many of the female leaders I know display the traits I have outlined, but they are in no way exclusive to women. Just as leadership traits such as decisiveness, ambition, strategic focus and confidence have been more associated with men (even though many female leaders exemplify them), there is a danger that a call for more empathy, integrity, vulnerability and humility, could be oversimplified as a call for more “female” qualities.

And there’s the rub: leadership remains a concept that is too often associated with characteristics that are inherently gendered. If we want to develop diverse leadership teams made up of the people most capable of leading for change, we need to start by de-gendering the traits that define what “great” looks like.

Currently our biases about leadership capability trump reality. The data tells us that women are rated more highly than men on the vast majority of key characteristics associated with good leadership, and yet they remain woefully underrepresented in those roles.

5 leadership attributes for a post pandemic world

We expect our leaders to demonstrate empathy with those whose lived experience may be different from their own. To acknowledge and address people’s concerns through their actions, not just their words.

The ability to inspire confidence will always be a key leadership attribute, but alongside this is a growing expectation to demonstrate greater vulnerability. To acknowledge, even apologise for not always getting it right. To share some degree of personal struggle or challenge. These tactics allow leaders to be more human and more approachable.

When writing the learning and development plan in a previous role, I asked the then CEO if he had any training needs. He laughed, saying he was long past the time when he needed to learn anything, which I found odd then, and would be unthinkable now. Many less experienced co-workers are more expert at a specific task than those in leadership. Recognizing that we don’t know it all and therefore developing our learning muscle is a key attribute of next generation leadership.

I hope all leaders intend to act with integrity, and perhaps the best have always done so. But in a world where there is so much mistrust of institutions, leadership that prizes honesty and integrity has never been more important. This is not just personal, it’s about corporate integrity too. If a company is bold enough to define a purpose and values to support it, failure to live up to them causes lasting damage to reputation.

So many problems we face today are too big for one company or team to solve. This requires finding common cause, harnessing collective effort and creative brain power. Fostering collaboration across these increasingly distributed networks of expertise, rather than imposing it through top-down hierarchies, is a key skill of tomorrow’s leaders.

Kate Waters
“The data tells us that women are rated more highly than men on the vast majority of key characteristics associated with good leadership”
- Kate Waters

As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic so memorably notes in his Why we should be more sexist TEDx talk: “If we recruited leaders on the basis of those proven-effective qualities, analysis shows 70% of them would be women.”

Despite the evidence that diverse, inclusive workforces & leadership teams win on every measure that matters, we know inequality and lack of proportionate representation are major issues across most industry sectors. Just one illustration of this being the fact that the gender pay gap has gone backwards in the UK this year.

What’s more, these inequalities for women only get worse when viewed through the lens of two, critically important criteria:

  • Intersectionality: when we apply an intersectional lens of ethnicity and/or disability, for example, the issues become markedly starker.
  • Leadership at the topAnn Francke, a WACL member and CEO of the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) describes the gender pay gap as a “glass pyramid”, with wider pay gaps for women the higher they reach inside an organization. 
waclWACL: an organization committed to change

WACL (Women in Advertising & Communications Leadership) is an organization of over 200 senior women in marketing, media, the creative industries and communications with a mission to accelerate gender equality for the benefit of all. 

As leaders, we use our power and influence to help lift others up, creating positive change both in our workplaces and in the work that we do. Because we believe everyone should have the same access, opportunity, experience and recognition to succeed in life, we campaign for change across the industry to create a working world that’s fairer, more diverse and more equitable. 

Our work includes campaigning to close the gender pay gap, addressing the representation of women in the media, raising money for our industry charity NABS and supporting #timeTo, the campaign to end sexual harassment. Our most recent campaign encouraged companies and organizations to be #FlexibleFirst because one of the biggest levers of change to create equality in the workplace is to measure people on output and not hours spent. 

We embrace and support women of all life stages across the industry via sponsorship, training and mentorship, inspiring emerging female talent to reach for the highest level of leadership through our Talent Festival and Awards. And we support, inspire and learn from each other, coming together for peer mentoring, thought leadership events and to hear from external speakers. Currently, our focus is on “leading for change”. 

De-gendering and diversifying leadership is an essential step to level the playing field for all women and underrepresented groups.

We are far from offering equal opportunities to progress to those who are able to enter the workforce, let alone those prevented from trying, either through lack of access, or a belief that there’s no place for people like them. Championing new leadership archetypes and dissociating them from gender can help us address this imbalance by stimulating different conversations, celebrating difference, challenging traditional mono-cultures and creating greater numbers of positive, inspiring role models for the diverse talent in our workforces whom we so need to attract and retain.

If you do one thing now: take an equitable approach to progression

Positive change rarely happens by itself. If we want to create a new breed capable of leading for change, we must: 

  1. Develop progression plans for individuals that actively de-gender leadership archetypes and value the difference they bring. 
  2. Monitor and address the proportion of women and underrepresented groups we promote into leadership roles.  
  3. Tackle other barriers, for example by offering flexible working by design, not just by default.

It’s tempting, when we are still in the teeth of the pandemic with the economic recovery still fragile, to cut back on access, mentoring and sponsorship programs. But we need them now more than ever. That’s why this year, WACL will be scaling up our talent mentoring and grant awards. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we’ll be looking not just for those traditional leadership qualities so esteemed in the past, but also for the newer ones that we know are the key to creating the fair, equitable and sustainable organizations the world needs now.


Kate Waters

Kate Waters

Kate Waters is 2021/22 Women in Advertising & Communications Leadership (WACL) President, and Director of Client Planning & Strategy at ITV. WACL is an organization of over 200 senior women in marketing, media, the creative industries, and communications with a mission to accelerate gender equality for the benefit of all.


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