by Jenna C. Fisher, leadership advisor at Russell Reynolds Associates and author of To the Top: How women in corporate leadership are rewriting the rules for success
For all the talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion over the past decade, it’s still a sobering fact that women still only hold 9% of CEOs seats at the largest 100 companies in the S&P 500
As a partner at one of the top global leadership advisory firms, it’s my personal mission to redress this imbalance and get women to 50/50 representation at the top table. Over the past year, I’ve spoken to dozens of powerful women leaders for my new book about what it will take to clear the obstacles for the next generation of women.
Throughout the process, I had a growing sense that we are in a unique moment in history when we have the chance to accelerate progress. Why? Because the global pandemic has forced every business to rethink their business models, their operations, and yes, their leaders. Taken together, I truly believe that women are standing on the most solid foundation for success we have ever seen. Here’s why.
The shift to remote working
When the pandemic struck, I—like many women—suddenly found myself with a luxury I’d craved for years: time. Without my usual commute, I not only gained two extra hours a day, but the chance to have dinner with my kids every night. I was working just as hard, but I was happier, more energized, and more productive, with a better work/life balance.
But remote working also brought other, less immediately obvious benefits. For many women, the greatest struggle in the workplace is simply being seen and heard. The power of our voices gets muffled as we are talked over, mansplained, dismissed, or ignored.
But as Christa Quarles, CEO of the global software company Alludo, told me, “the thing about remote meetings with larger groups is that everybody’s Zoom box is the same size. It engenders a kind of equality. Everyone’s viewpoint gets represented and it becomes much harder for a few people to dominate.”
At the same time, technologies that can accurately measure things like productivity and output are helping to prove that the woman who leaves work early to pick up her kids from school is getting just as much done as the man who’s first to arrive and last to leave.
The global pandemic has also helped rewrite the rules on what it means to be a great leader. These shifts were already underway as companies grappled with new and emerging issues like social justice, sustainability, or tech transformation. But COVID significantly sped up the pace of change.
Amid the chaos and uncertainty, we saw demand soar for a more collaborative, authentic, and empathetic style of leadership. Gone are the days of the ‘hero CEO’ who mimicked a war-time general to exercise absolute authority and control. Instead, we’re seeing a demand for leaders who cultivate a kind of ‘compassionate command.’
This isn’t just theory. When RRA analyzed the position specifications that our clients have us craft to explain the specific skills they are looking for in their next executive, we found that mentions of terms related to being purpose-driven, inclusive, adaptable, and able to cut through complexity increased significantly between the two time periods we studied: 2002–2006 and 2018–2021.
And the good news? When we then used a psychometric personality tool to compare how men and women performed against these most in-demand leadership traits, we found no meaningful difference between the sexes. In other words, leadership is evolving rapidly and, when it comes to leading in 2023 and beyond, women and men are on a level playing field, each intrinsically possessing equal doses of what it takes to succeed.
A new Industrial Revolution
As Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister, told us, “all the big power structures in our societies have developed over time and they’ve been based on the rhythm of men’s lives.” The old Industrial Age models of in-office work that we still adhere to today were developed by men, for men.
What we are living through now, in real time, is nothing less than an Industrial Revolution 2.0. We are in a rare moment of history where we can completely reset our workplace culture in a way that works better not just for women, but everyone.
The old definitions of success and what it takes to lead are giving way to something that is altogether more collaborative and more inclusive not just for women, but people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people and other under-represented communities.
We still have a mountain to climb before we achieve true parity. But we also have the opportunity of a lifetime to fast-track progress and accelerate the stubbornly slow trajectory of change.