The future is female – do women-led firms fare better in a crisis

Women in leadership positions are still in the minority in 2021, although studies have shown that female leaders handle crises better than men. We asked Shelley Zalis, CEO of The Female Quotient, why women are more crisis-resistant.

CEO of The Female Quotient: Shelley Zalis
Image: The Female Quotient

Despite the fact that equality is not a new topic, female managers are very much in the minority in many industries. Could this be about to change?

Shelley Zalis: I remain optimistic that we are working in the right direction. However, the pandemic has disproportionately impacted women, and if we don’t take proactive action to course correct, we are at risk of undoing decades of progress towards gender equality. The World Economic Forum came out with sobering data in their 2021 Global Gender Gap Report: “As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be felt, closing the global gender gap has increased by a generation from 99.5 years to 135.6 years.” Leaders and organizations must take a stand to create workplaces that work for women. That means rethinking how we recruit and retain talent, examining our flexible working and parental leave policies, and placing great emphasis on returnship programs.

At the start of the year, separate studies conducted by Harvard University and the University of Liverpool concluded that countries led by women seem to be weathering the COVID-19 crisis better. What advantages do female leaders have over others in crisis situations?

Shelley Zalis: Examining the global response to COVID-19, female leaders have stood out. In many instances, it was women-led countries who acted before anyone else. Traditionally “feminine” strengths shine in a crisis: We are nurturers and strong communicators, putting the collective good before our own self-interest. We know how to be decisive and empathetic in equal measure. The traditionally “masculine” traits we typically associate with leadership — being competitive, assertive, confident, dominant, independent — aren’t necessarily the best qualities to navigate a crisis.

The fact that the way women communicate is an important factor in navigating crises has also been highlighted, so what lessons can men learn from women here?

Shelley Zalis: In a pre-pandemic research report The Female Quotient conducted in partnership with Deloitte, 72% of respondents agreed that we need a new definition of what a “leader” is in today’s world. We provided a list of hard and soft power traits, and interestingly, being communicative – a soft power, and traditionally feminine trait — was far and away the most important value that respondents thought made a good leader. I think we all have a newfound appreciation for the power of taking the time to communicate calmly, clearly, and empathetically. I think back to the beginning of the pandemic, when Jacinda Ardern conducted a Facebook Live chat from her couch at home to reassure fellow New Zealanders the evening she ordered an early lockdown. That move set the tone for her entire pandemic response.

Women are often accused of failing to put themselves forward for management positions and of holding back when it comes to promotion. Are women too self-critical, does this stop them from progressing and how can we combat stereotypical prejudices?

Shelley Zalis: I think that’s putting an unfair burden on women. We know that women suffer from Imposter Syndrome, but so do men. Women are perhaps more disproportionately affected by it because they lack female role models at the top. I would challenge all leaders to assess their own biases — unconscious or otherwise — and examine how they might creep into who they hire and promote. Organizations also need to focus on creating retention strategies for all employees, including working mothers and women who are juggling multiple caretaking responsibilities.

Participate in inspiring and exciting sessions on “Female Leadership & Empowerment” and “Diversity & Inclusion” at DMEXCO @home 2021:

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