The Power of Female Leadership

Company Diversity
8 March 2021

On International Women’s Day, it is important to take a moment to reflect on the female leadership and resilience that has seen us through the pandemic. As the coronavirus expanded across the globe, many noticed that female-led countries seemed to be handling the crisis far better than the rest. There has been speculation on why this is. It is more complex than suggesting women are simply better leaders in a crisis. Some suggest that countries that are likely to elect female leaders have greater equality, and a culture that is more likely to respond effectively to the pandemic. But this does not undermine the idea that female leaders are important. Instead, it reinforces it. Organisations that have women in leadership roles have been found to be ‘higher quality’ overall, with better returns on equity and those that effectively utilise female talent are 45 percent more likely to report improved market share.

Why is leadership so important?

When utilising the full potential of the workforce, management must do more than simply hire women. Just as with female politicians, valuing equity might have got them to where they are, but they continue to reinforce it through their work. A study found that through the pandemic, male leaders had a greater tendency to use fear-based tactics bolstered by war analogies when talking about the virus. In contrast, female leaders focused on families, children and vulnerable groups and encouraged compassion and social cohesion. This study becomes far more significant when we begin to see that working mothers and vulnerable groups have borne the brunt of the pandemic. Many female leaders – even those without children or dependents – will have seen or experienced the pressure that falls principally on women to act in unpaid caring roles, often sacrificing time and attention on work to do so.

By introducing more leaders with experience and empathy for these complex systemic challenges, we will be more likely to focus time and resources on surpassing them. We can encourage workplace cultures that recognise that different people have different needs and can offer flexibility to work around them. In addition, representation is important. For women hoping to work their way up an organisation, seeing only men in the leadership roles suggests a culture that does not encourage greater equality and can suggest an atmosphere of toxic masculinity, even if there isn’t one. These ambitious women may choose to take their skills elsewhere.

Leadership during the pandemic

Rachel Smith, Group FOH Manager said: As a woman leading teams in the facilities management sector through the pandemic, I found that the soft skills more often attributed to women were completely vital. Empathy was so important throughout the entire process. We had to furlough some of our people and others have continued to work on the frontline throughout the pandemic. Both options are stressful, so it is important to engage with everyone. Our usual work-focussed one-to-one calls became social catchups in which individuals could share their challenges and wins. These calls have always been open for individuals to let me know if they needed any additional support, and this continued, but being able to share in a less formal way is also important when so many people are feeling isolated. We’ve continued to hold virtual socials and mental health has been at the front of everything we’ve done.

With remote working now the norm, we also saw an opportunity to bring our team leaders closer together by having them work as virtual teams on any projects we had going on this year. Our teams are spread across many sites so in many ways, making remote working and separation normal has brought them all closer together.

It’s so important to be sensitive to the fact that everyone is facing unique challenges and needs an approach that works for them. Flexibility is vital. For those on furlough, it is important to know that Portico hasn’t forgotten them. We want to engage in their training and invest in them throughout the process, both because it can be rewarding for them to have something to do and because it shows them that we don’t want to lose them. However, there will also be individuals who are managing home-schooling or looking after vulnerable people. We don’t want to demand that they engage with us on top of this, so we offered training throughout the year but none of it has been mandatory.

We have been sensitive of those that might benefit from time at home because of dependents and tried to furlough those that wanted to be home. Mothers with young children, particularly, have found it helpful to take furlough. Where it’s possible to work reduced or more flexible hours, we have encouraged working mothers and those with dependents to do so.

This year has revolutionised what it means to be a leader and if people can place greater value in empathy and people-centric work, that’s a win.

Investing in people

Putting our teams at the front of everything we do hasn’t been a big change for Portico. We’ve always invested a huge amount into wellbeing and training – and been recognised for it – so this wasn’t so much of a jump. I hope other organisations recognise the value in this approach and it sticks long after the pandemic.

We have always had a relatively good gender balance in our teams and a huge part of that comes down to succession-planning and investing in training. Studies have shown that women will only apply for jobs they feel fully qualified for, while men will apply when they only meet 60 percent of the qualifications. We see a similar pattern in confidence when bringing men and women over from other companies or other areas of the company. Women definitely tend to have less confidence in new job roles, but they also tend to work incredibly hard to make up for any areas they feel they might be lacking. In my experience, this means that with a little extra time and training, they can work their way up the business really quickly. Most of the leadership roles I train have ended up being taken by women for this reason. But if leaders just expect people to put themselves forward without that investment, they will miss out on a huge amount of potential and probably end up with very male-dominated teams.

The pandemic has changed so much about the way we work. It shows how adaptable we are. I hope that in turn, leaders recognise other small changes that can help to create more equal and effective teams. The old ways of doing things have gone out the window. If leaders aren’t adapting to these changes and questioning how they can improve, they aren’t going to see what their teams are really capable of.