While the pandemic has impacted the lives of the entire global population, its disruption has not been equal.
For instance, women have been disproportionally impacted both personally and professionally. This is because they make up to 70% of the workforce of the most disrupted sectors: leisure and hospitality.
However, they also bore the brunt of caring responsibilities, such as children being out of school due to COVID-19 restrictions. This has pushed women out of the workforce in droves, which will have a long-term impact on their careers.
However, it is not all doom and gloom. The FTSE Women Leaders Review found that the 2020s so far have seen significant progress in terms of gender equality at leadership levels.
In 2021, 39.1% of FTSE 100 board positions are held by women – this is up from 12.5% ten years ago. In addition, women make up 36.8% of FTSE 250 boards and 37.6% of FTSE 350 boards. There were 700 more women in leadership positions in the FTSE 350 – this represents a 2% increase year-on-year.
Another important change has been a significant decline in the number of all-male boards in the FTSE 250; in 2017 there were 54 companies with no women on their boards, in 2021 it was 16. Also, 92 of FTSE 250 boards had 40% or more women on their boards.
Interestingly, there was a 3.4% increase in women in leadership in the travel & leisure industry, and similarly a 1.7% increase in the retail sector; both of which are hard to hit sectors. Also, progress on boards have seen an even greater increase: 5.4% and 3.7% respectively.
How to drive more progress for women in leadership
While this is promising, and it demonstrates that attitudes have changed around the importance of having gender-diverse boards and leadership teams, the number of female CEOs in the FTSE 350 remains flat.
CBI’s director-general Tony Danker commented: “The moral and business case for gender diversity is watertight, but the job is far from done.
“As we emerge from the pandemic, there’s more that needs to be done to dismantle the barriers that prevent women rising to the top. Businesses have a vital role to play in achieving a more inclusive economy, where work enables all talent to progress.”
The CEO of FTSE Women Leaders Review, Denise Wilson, added: “We need to firmly shift focus in this next phase to leadership roles, and those at the top of the organization, including the Chief Executive Officer roles where women remain few and far between.
“The challenges of the last two years have not impacted the workforce equally, and some of those most impacted include women.
“It has also brought into even sharper focus the systematic and known obstacles to improving women’s representation in the workplace, especially for young parents, black and ethnic minority women, and those with caring responsibilities.
“Leaders now have an opportunity to act on this and accelerate change.”
So what must employers do to ensure that women have equal opportunities to achieve leadership positions, and particularly board and CEO positions?
The report calls on FTSE 350 businesses to embrace flexible working – but only if they are intentional and don’t allow proximity bias to creep in. This is where those in the office who are more visible to managers and leaders, are more likely to receive promotions, than those working from home.
In addition, businesses need to redouble efforts to attract and retain diverse candidates, as well as review their parental leave and childcare policies. The latter can help balance childcare and other caring responsibilities between parents and free up women to focus on their career progression.
DeltaNet International managing director Darren Hockley added: “Representation matters, and it starts by changing attitudes in the workplace.
“If organizations want to prosper and retain their best talent, they must tackle unconscious bias head-on by training their leadership teams on the importance of diversity and inclusion.
“They need to encourage people from diverse backgrounds to continue expanding their skill sets and represent the organization at board level.”
The time to act is now; let’s build on the progress of the past decade and continue the focus on creating a culture of equity and inclusion in the world of work.