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How can professional services firms really support their female leaders?

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Supporting female leaders makes sense. Firms with female leaders see higher profits, a more diverse workforce and higher employee engagement. But despite the obvious benefits, gender equality in leadership positions is a long way off.

With the pandemic placing additional strain on women trying to advance their careers while staying on top of their caring responsibilities, and a diminishing window of opportunity to achieve leadership roles. It’s more important than ever that firms step up and start working with women to support current and aspirational female leaders to reach their full potential.

Women in the workplace

While more female leaders are rising to senior positions, it’s a trickle. The gate isn’t fully open yet. Despite evidence showing that companies with female leaders outperform those led by men there’s still too many obstacles in the way for women to overcome to reach gender parity.

Covid hit women particularly hard, and it’s been said many times that it saw a reversal in gender roles with women giving up their careers to focus on their caring responsibilities. In fact, women went from providing 49.1% of childcare to 56.4% while seeing a reduction in joint support by 27.2%. This step back has stalled progress and also created a gap of experienced women who aren’t able to fully contribute to the workplace.

Research found that in 2021 79% of women didn't’ feel supported in developing their leadership skills. With many feeling like that lack of support has held them back in their career.

What’s holding women back?

There’s a small window of opportunity for women to be promoted to a leadership position. If they haven’t reached a leadership role in the first 10 years of their career then their chances of securing one in the future are severely limited. From that point the gap between men and women increases.

When you combine that statistic with the preconceived thoughts about women in the workplace and that female leaders are twice as likely as male ones to be mistaken for someone more junior. It’s clear that women are facing deep-rooted societal bias in their ambitions.

How can firms support current and future female leaders?

It’s not all doom and gloom. There are some basic steps that firms can take to ensure female leaders, both current and future, are supported and empowered to achieve senior leadership positions.

1. Mentorship and coaching

There are many obstacles in a woman’s career. Navigating those, standing up for themselves and forging a path is hard work, particularly if you feel like you’ve got no one to turn to. Mentoring connects women with others who have had a similar experience. The statistics around the impact of mentoring on a woman’s career are also staggering.

●      Those with mentors are promoted five times more than their peers

●      87% of mentees feel empowered

●      Retention and promotion rates for women with mentors increased from 15 to 38%.

(Source: Together Platform)


It raises the question: why wouldn’t you offer a mentorship program for female leaders, or aspiring leaders?

There may be times when it’s difficult to facilitate a mentorship program, in those instances it’s worth looking into coaching. While this has a slightly different angle to mentoring it can help build women’s confidence, suppress imposter syndrome and create the self-belief necessary to secure, and thrive in a leadership role.

2. Flexible working

In this post-Covid era flexible working is no longer a dirty phrase. But there’s still a lack of understanding around what flexible working really is and how it should be rolled out.

When thinking about flexible working, many jump to the thought of part-time work. And if most people are being honest they think of women in those part-time roles. But the reality is flexible working is much more than that. It’s remote work, contracting, annualised hours,9-day fortnights and everything in between. The reality is also that it’s not just a women’s problem.

Increasingly, workers are citing flexibility as a key driver in their employment decisions. With 44% of returners to the workplace citing their top reason for returning was flexibility. That’s both men and women. Because flexible working has to be about everyone, not just focused on women. If we focus solely on women’s needs for flexibility then we’re pigeon holing them into primary caring roles and that feeds into the subconscious bias women are trying to fight every day.

Flexibility goes beyond parenting. It should apply to anyone who wants to have commitments outside of the office - whether that’s pets, hobbies, family needs or just to do what they want. It’s that shift in mindset that will support female leaders to succeed.

3. Wellbeing

43% of women leaders are burned out.

That’s almost half of the women surveyed admitting they’re struggling to do it all. The problem comes from the narrative around female burnout that it’s because they can’t have it all, they need to focus on their homelife. The media coverage around Jacinda Arden’s resignation proved that.

It’s no wonder that female leaders face burnout and concerns over their wellbeing. As men’s careers advance they do less housework. But the same can’t be said for women. A study by McKinsey & Co found that regardless of their seniority at work women do between 52-58% of the household chores.

The conversation needs to be changed. It shouldn’t centre on having it all, but it should instead focus on supporting women to succeed. Removing barriers around childcare, caring responsibilities and the juggle to empower women.

That needs to happen in wider society but also in the office. With firms taking a proactive step to ask women what support they need to improve their wellbeing and mental heatlh, and then putting it in place. Showing that women are valued and their challenges are real.

4. Promotion opportunities

While the number of female leaders in FTSE 100 companies jumped from 9% in 2011 to 37.6% at the start of 2022. It’s a difficult place to get to. In part that’s because of bias within the promotion process.

For every 100 men who get promoted to manager only 87 women are. That means right from the initial step up into management there’s a disparity in the number of male to female managers. That gap only widens over time.

This requires firms to look at their promotion criteria and assess whether there is gender bias built into the process. A 2019 study found that male candidates were assessed for their potential with female candidates only evaluated on their performance. With such inbuilt gender bias it’s impossible for female leaders to be supported and it’s down to firms to critically evaluate their processes and put the relevant steps in to overcome any bias.

Ultimately the best way firms can support their female leaders is through challenging stereotypes and bias towards them. That’s a big ask, but through changing attitudes in the recruitment process, flexible working, the right policies in place and addressing gender bias in action it’s possible to create a positive working environment where female leaders flourish and pave the way for others to follow in her footsteps.


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