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Post-COVID, companies need to prioritize retaining and promoting women leaders

Published 6 May 2022 in Management • 5 min read

The pandemic has set back efforts to increase gender equality and women’s progression in the workplace. Taking meaningful action to prioritize work-life balance and increasing efforts to remove unconscious biases around women’s leadership will help companies get back on track, says Sara Gay, Head of Group Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Unicredit.


The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed tens of millions of women out of the workforce and impacted their career ambitions and leadership progression. This is not only damaging for gender equality in the workplace, but can negatively impact the performance of companies. Research shows women demonstrate higher levels compassion than men, meaning employees who work for women leaders are often more engaged and productive.

A lack of work-life balance and an increased workload are among the top reasons cited by women considering leaving their current employers. Nearly 80% of women say their workloads have increased because of the pandemic, while two-thirds of women report having more responsibilities at home, according to Deloite Global’s 2021 report on [email protected]. The research also showed that the pandemic has created even greater challenges for LGBT+ women and women of color, who are more likely to report lower levels of mental well-being and work-life balance.

At the same time, the turmoil brought about by the coronavirus crisis has increased the desire among employees for a more kind and caring leadership, with workers increasingly looking for organizations that prioritize their wellbeing. A recent study by McKinsey found women scored more highly at providing emotional support, such as checking in on overall wellbeing, helping to navigate work-life challenges, managing their employees’ workloads and taking actions to prevent burnout.

Keeping women in the workforce and helping them progress to leadership roles therefore represents a huge opportunity to improve company performance.

Designing leadership programs for women that really work

Powerful sponsors with specialist training and a deep commitment are needed to help propel women into senior roles.

Meaningful action can prevent women from opting out

The good news is that it’s still possible for organizations to make sustained and meaningful progress on gender equality at work. Women who work for companies that provide an inclusive work culture ­ – where women feel supported by their employers on work-life balance and career development ­– report better mental well-being, motivation and productivity, and are more loyal to their employers. Notably, they are far more likely to stay with their current employers for longer than two years.
Sustained change will only come when women experience truly inclusive workplaces – whether virtual or in-person – where statements on the importance of gender equality are backed up by meaningful actions, and where goals are set and progress is measured.

At the banking group UniCredit, where I am Head of Group Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, we are committed to supporting our colleagues in their daily personal, family and professional challenges; flexibility, wellbeing and caring for our people play a crucial role in our DE&I and Welfare strategy.

In 2020 UniCredit launched the Family Board to support individual and family needs stemming from the COVID-19 with concrete initiatives on flexibility, management of remote teams, support for home schooling and work-life balance.

Setting standards and policies on parental leave can help contribute to a more inclusive workplace, by enabling mothers’ career continuity and encouraging fathers’ engagement in childcare. In 2021 UniCredit has defined a Group-wide minimum standard for parental leave, applying it in all the Group countries: mothers are offered at least 16 weeks, while fathers 4 weeks of paid leave.

Other policies that can try to shift the bias that caring responsibilities should fall to women, include upgrading and strengthening the flexible working model and focusing on a wider definition of a caregiver.

In addition, a number of dedicated leadership and development programmes have been launched across Unicredit to support our people creating an inclusive and supporting culture and to empower our most promising colleagues, enhancing their leadership capabilities and maximizing their career progression.

The UniCredit Group new headquarters in Milan.

Overcoming gendered norms

Aside from the challenges that push women out of the workforce, a wealth of research shows that female leaders, much more than male leaders, face the need to be warm and nice, as well as competent or tough. The problem is that these qualities are often seen as opposites. Alleviating this double bind requires changing our deeply embedded societal expectations for what it means to be a woman and what it takes to lead. However, until we get there, women still have to navigate the many tensions that come with leading.

It is important to go beyond the consideration of gender differences by themselves to focus on the way these differences can positively influence the organizational performance.

  1. At UniCredit we aim to achieve gender parity in both leadership and managerial roles and promote development initiatives for our leaders to ensure inclusive leadership styles, removing unconscious biases and to develop (i.e. women have more soft skills, men more technical skills).

The good news for female leaders is that the pandemic has increased demand for kind and caring leaders who are empathetic and have strong enough emotional and social intelligence to understand their teams and what matters to them.

Employees want a more human employment value proposition; they want leaders to recognize their value and provide value to them on a human level. Monetary compensation is important for surviving, but deeper relationships, a strong sense of community and purpose-driven work are essential to thriving. This is the value that employees expect their managers to provide.

Managers will need to understand the personalities they work with and create a psychologically safe environment which empowers each individual and encourages them to speak up and voice individual opinions and ideas.

Against this backdrop, I believe agility and adaptability and, most importantly, empathy and caring will be the leadership skills that will be crucial for a post-pandemic world. Retaining and promoting women leaders will be an important step in creating a much more engaged workforce of the future.

It’s time to focus on talent rather than gender

Diversity and inclusion programs are booming, but don’t always produce the required results. Here are four ways to make them work.


Sara Gay

Sara Gay

Head of Group Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Unicredit

Sara Gay is Head of Group Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Unicredit. She has worked for more than two decades in banking in major European financial institutions, developing a career from investment banking to human capital and leadership development.


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