Skip to main content


Women in Leadership has a problem – here’s how to fix it

The latest data and global reports

Jennifer Dunkerley

marblejordan via Twenty20

Unleash Your Crazy The pandemic and related events of 2020 have seen previous progress for women in leadership shift path.

  • +7% is reportedly the forecasted global widening of the gender pay gap in 2020.
  • 25% of computing jobs this year went to women in leadership, a drop from 32% in 1990. So we’re going backward.
  • 14% more women were placed on comparable workplace furlough schemes than men.
kelly.kimbis via Twenty20

“Give her visibility, and she’ll break barriers.”

It was the slogan that infiltrated TV ads, stadiums, billboards, and social media feeds around the world for the first quarter of 2019, in what at the time felt like a sizeable-shift year for women in leadership in the post #MeToo era.

The combined powerhouse of Adidas, who coined the creative, and competitor Nike’s noisy sponsorship of Serena Williams sparked new conversations around role models within sports, and within women in leadership and turning stereotypes we’d once shy away from in the workplace on their head, using them as female superpowers. Things were on the up.

Then 2020 came along and visibility for women shifted again.

While we’ve undoubtedly made great waves of progress towards gender equality in the workplace, events of 2020 in many new ways, caused the conversation to split path.

Women in leadership has changed. Have you kept up?

Kiana Bosman via Unsplash

When Serena’s campaign Dream Crazier for Nike listed female stereotypes such as being emotional, standing up for a cause, getting angry, or being too good at work, in a way that compared them to our depiction of men, it would have been impossible to imagine a pandemic world in which her words played out more poignantly. For fast-forward 12 months and workplaces worldwide are now in a completely different ball game altogether; those attributes are finally seeing meaningful results in places of power in some sectors. In others, they’ve been more sidelined than before.

Just when working from home and fighting a pandemic could and should have made the work place a level playing field, for many – it didn’t.

Depending on your position, it either created new ways for women to get that seat at the table, use some of the ‘crazy’ to help businesses diversify and in turn get ahead. Or it left them more invisible than ever.

Here’s what happened:


Last week research in the UK by the Fawcett Society and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London (KCL) found that of the 10 leading countries in the world, Great Britain lagged behind in the last place for equality, following nations which (they said) have “much more robust systems” for reporting. The requirement to report gender pay gap data in the UK was suspended this year because of the coronavirus crisis. And before that, UK private sector employers didn’t need to publish an action plan to tackle such pay gaps. Similarly, Austria does not make it compulsory for private sector employers to submit gender pay actions either.

It does appear though, unfortunately, that the gender pay gap may be widening, not narrowing in 2020.

Figures from Business In The Community found that, from the 5,000 or so leading global companies that did submit this year – even though Liz Truss, the U.K.’s Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade, scrapped their obligation to do so one month before the deadline, the gap had widened to 12.8%, from 11.9% a year earlier. That’s a +7% increase in a year.

For many analysts, this was disappointing, questioning whether the reporting burden on HR departments really was that challenging? The participating companies report, via an online portal, how many people you employ, and the mean and median hourly pay data, separated for men and women, and the same for bonuses. You don’t have to break it down any further. Most companies already have this recorded on an Excel spreadsheet. Why aren’t more opting in?

only 25% of computing jobs were given to women, a huge drop from 32% back in 1990.  So yes, we’re going backward.


The Pew Research Center found that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) all-up jobs have grown +79% since 1990 and even outpaced all other job sectors in the United States. In fact, technology or computing is the highest paying and fastest-growing of the four. Yet in 2020, only 25% of computing jobs were given to women, a huge drop from 32% back in 1990.  So yes, for women at work, not just women in leadership, we’re going backward.

What’s more, data from Statista revealed that Big Tech companies Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft only have a female workforce of about 34.4 percent women. Microsoft’s most recently reportedly figure for FY19 saw the representation of women in its global workforce as low 27.6%.

Read more:



Catalyst reported that women hold only 26.5 percent of executive, senior-level and management positions in S&P 500 companies, a percentage tech companies try to match or exceed. It’s no wonder why many women in tech companies have reported gender discrimination and even sexual harassment in the past 12 months.

However, in advertising and media, it’s a different story. Released last week, the third annual #Inclusive100 benchmarking study from She Runs It found that in this sector, women now hold 45.4% of all executive positions, compared to just 29% last year. A healthy increase of +56%. However, it was noted that while most advertising and media companies are doing a better job of monitoring workplace equality goals (54.2% are reportedly doing so), 0% are linking manager performance measures and compensation to those goals.


When it comes to whether more women or men lost their jobs due to COVID-19, the data is equally patchy. According to Great Britain’s HMRC, by the end of July, 34% of men and 29% of women eligible for the UK’s workplace furlough scheme took it. 

The gender breakdown isn’t any more specific, however. This is unfortunate because 31 March is when Britain’s public sector calculates its gender gap figures, and it’s 5 April for the private sector. What does seem clearer is the furlough split between mothers and fathers. The Resolution Foundation found that mothers were +14% more likely to be on furlough than fathers in May. Mothers are more likely to quit their jobs, be made redundant, or do fewer hours than men during the virus. In other words, more mothers are being pushed out of the workforce. In many cases, because when it came down to it, they were the lower-paid spouse.


Yet, in times of national and international crisis, having a breadth and depth of work force proved to be a strength.

Varied information sources, and leaders with the humility to listen to outside voices, are crucial for a successful pandemic response, Devi Sridhar, the Chair of Global Health at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh Medical School, wrote last week in an op-ed in the British Medical Journal. “The only way to avoid ‘groupthink’ and blind spots is to ensure representatives with diverse backgrounds and expertise have a seat at the table when major decisions are made,” she stressed. It seems obvious, but clearly isn’t the case when you review major decision-makers’ inner circles.

Let’s look at our widely varying global political leaders:

Having a woman leader is one signal that people of diverse backgrounds — and thus, hopefully, diverse perspectives on how to combat crises — can win seats at said table.

In Germany, for example, Angela Merkel’s government carefully considered a variety of different information sources when developing its COVID-19 response policy, including epidemiological models, data from medical providers, and evidence from South Korea’s successful program of testing and isolation. As a result, Germany has achieved a coronavirus death rate that is dramatically lower than those of other Western European countries.

In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s approach to fighting the pandemic could not be further from that traditional ‘male leader’ archetype. But on this new kind of crisis, her cautious, empathetic leadership has proved successful. Shutting down the economy early was risk-averse, but it was a decision she made to protect life first.

Dressed in a cozy-looking sweatshirt, she empathized with citizens’ anxieties and offered apologies to anyone who was startled or alarmed by the emergency alert that announced the lockdown order.

After New Zealand began its lockdown on March 25, Ardern addressed the nation via a casual Facebook Live session on her phone after putting her toddler to bed. Dressed in a cozy-looking sweatshirt, she empathized with citizens’ anxieties and offered apologies to anyone who was startled or alarmed by the emergency alert that announced the lockdown order.

“There’s no way to send out those emergency civil alerts on your phones with anything other than the loud honk that you heard,” she announced. “That was actually something we all discussed: Was there a way that we could send that message that wasn’t so alarming?”

In the U.S., however, President Donald Trump went full-on macho man in his attack in a bid to show strength. He went into war with the virus, calling it a “brilliant enemy.” But that tact has sadly not aided American efforts to contain the pandemic. The United States now has the highest coronavirus death toll in the world.

In Britain, PM Boris Johnson took the reins a prominent Brexit backer, promising to play hardball to win the best “deal” in the country’s exit from the European Union. Yet those negotiation skills he used to battle Brussels weren’t quite as successful in the fight against the pandemic. His government repeatedly delayed both England’s lockdowns and other crucial protective measures like increasing testing capacity and ordering safety equipment for hospitals. Britain’s death toll is now the second-highest globally and rising.

But male leaders can overcome gendered expectations. And perhaps a different kind of tactic such as being caring, thoughtful, and emotionally ‘crazy’ will finally be valued in the current climate?

wanaktek via Twenty20

Pinky Lilani CBE, CEO, and founder of the Women of the Future project, thinks so. She told UNLEASH: “Being kind, working with kindness and empathy should be any women’s strength, and any leader’s strength. Particularly right now. Having kindness at the heart of what you do is the only way to make decisions now with any clarity. If you could do something that can positively change someone’s life, then why not do it? So many men think to be successful is to work in a transactional way. But actually, kindness is powerful and small acts of emotion towards others can have a huge image.

“Now is the time to raise each other up, help each other, and find commonalities in our work. Men are very good at networking with each other, which can sometimes lead to an unconscious bias. Women need that same support to feel recognized for being themselves and appreciated. We shouldn’t shy away from those qualities which make us distinctly female but instead understand that being yourself is more important.”


Former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, speaking at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit last month, said that companies must rethink how they hire nowadays to stay ahead.

Stressing a focus away from the traditional ‘haves’ and checkboxes on a CV and instead on someone’s interpersonal skills and ability to learn new ways of working, she believes, is more meaningful.

When she stepped into senior leadership as the company’s first female CEO in 2012, Rometty feared that the new digital era “was not going to become an inclusive era, ironically. There was going to be haves and have-nots.” Without equal access to tech training and opportunities, “it would leave a lot of people behind.”

Referring to the lack of women in key leadership roles, particularly in technology, she now reflected more poignantly at the step back for women, eight years later.

“They are out there with the skills. We can teach them the hard skills, but it’s the soft skills they need to come in with.”

Rometty believes rethinking our hiring strategy based on the current data, particularly for women, as an utmost priority as a business imperative and a societal one. Especially if the events of 2020 are anything to go by.

For right now, Rometty says it’s up to us to make the change. We’re at a crossroads and have a choice when it comes to that promoting that visibility.

“It is actually in our hands to change society forever.”

More like this

It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.