Q&A: Women Downshifted Their Careers During Covid, Here’s How to Reverse the Trend

CoachHub · 3 May 2022 · 5 min read

The subject of gender equality, whether at work or elsewhere, has been in the news a great deal lately. Although we now have a clearer overview of this issue and are seeing more and more initiatives aimed at striking the right balance, the problem is far from solved.

Worldwide, women have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Data from McKinsey shows professional women in the United States were experiencing increased representation in early 2020. From January 2015 and December 2019, women in the senior vice president position rose 5% and the proportion of women in the C-suite grew by 4%. Though these numbers were small wins, they were promising. But, ultimately, they were not maintained throughout the pandemic; one in four women considered downshifting their careers during the COVID-19 pandemic. In contrast, only one in five men considered the same.

Supporting women to attain leadership in the workplace has never been more essential. Here’s how companies can rethink their approach to professional development for women at work.

“I would say that female leadership relies on a form of sensitivity, intuition and a capacity to be realistic in order to find pragmatic and consensual solutions.”

– Marie Rousseau

Expert Interview: How to Support Women at Work Today

We caught up with Marie Rousseau, Senior Change Manager at a major insurance group, to discuss her thoughts on how to support women to grow into leadership positions at work.

CoachHub: Is there a distinctive female leadership style that stands out from a male leadership style?

Rousseau: When we talk about a female leadership style, what comes to mind for me is a more human leadership style, displaying greater empathy and focusing more on individual connections. It involves greater presence and proximity with the teams, demonstrating an ability to listen, which makes it possible to analyze each individual and understand their problems. Many women also naturally develop a coaching approach or play a supportive role, seeking to develop their teams in order to maximize individual and group performance.

Based on my own personal observations, I would say that female leadership relies on a form of sensitivity, intuition and a capacity to be realistic in order to find pragmatic and consensual solutions.

On the other hand, male leadership is in my view more focused on objectives and results, with a wish to clearly lay out a vision and plot a clear course to be followed. It’s therefore dynamic and agile, with greater analytical and decision-making capacities, to the extent it may even be rather directive – which can also be good for teams. These leadership styles are nevertheless stereotypes and are rarely seen in absolute terms. I firmly believe that there’s a female and male side to each of us.

CoachHub: What is preventing women from developing as leaders and expressing themselves today?

Rousseau: In my view, women face intrinsic limitations as well as obstacles related to their environment. Very often, women harbor limited beliefs towards themselves. They can have a tendency toward self-censorship, and a difficulty in taking the initiative or asserting themselves. In my opinion these difficulties are more personal in nature, often related to childhood and to the different stages involved in building self-confidence and self-esteem. In these cases, coaching can be a great way to unlock the brakes, and to overcome frustrations or obstacles, to instead learn to assert yourself and to feel more at ease with your own choices and decisions.

In some societies, some countries, some companies or even in some teams, practices, attitudes and beliefs remain discriminatory regarding women. As a result, it’s harder for women to think for themselves, to operate comfortably and to achieve their full potential as a professional woman. Despite this, I’m convinced that times are changing and that postmodern societies are moving towards gender equity. There’s still a long and winding road ahead of us so we need to remain vigilant.

CoachHub: How can companies help women to release their full potential and express their leadership qualities?

Rousseau: First, a program-based approach. Companies should introduce holistic programs aimed at developing and showcasing female talent. This can be a bottom up approach: through the provision of training and coaching activities, women will become aware of their own personal reticence and obstacles, assume greater responsibility and develop more self-confidence.

This program-based approach can also operate in a top down manner, including the sponsorship of female leadership at the highest possible level. Each CEO must showcase female talent and set an excellent example in their dealings with these talented individuals.

According to the Women Matter survey from McKinsey, only 43% of men are fully convinced that women have the capacity to assume a leadership role (compared to 84% of women). This needs to change and talking about it is not enough, it needs to be an active sponsorship, clearly visible, and at the highest level.

Second, showcasing good examples: This means holding up female successes as a positive example to inspire and raise awareness. These exemplary female staff must go on to become both members of the senior management and local management. Men also need to set an example, by actively talking about what they do to support their female co-workers. These solutions can be encouraged and even run by the company through mentoring programs, personal testimonials or events.

Third, awareness-building programs: These include events and workshops that aim at analyzing stereotypes, to be better equipped to dismantle them. Firstly, it’s important to set the scene, showing the real place of women in the world of work today, backed up with figures. This makes it possible to discuss the issue objectively, demonstrating that it’s not just a myth or a belief. This “educational” work is vital to change the way people think.

Finally, the company must implement real operational policies to make parenting easier by offering flexible hours, sabbatical leave, parental leave, child-care options, paternity leave and subsidies.

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Next Steps

Want more ideas on how to support women in the workplace? Access our eBook, “Women in leadership: Creating supportive workspaces.” If you’re ready to move forward with designing a people development program that is truly impactful for the women in you’re organization, consider adding digital coaching to you’re toolbox. And remember, we’re here to help. Schedule a time to connect.

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