The Paradox of Progress, the Pandemic, and Women in Leadership

Women’s history month comes to a close at what feels like a turning point for women in the workforce and in leadership. It’s a confusing landscape. In the most senior-level leadership roles in the United States, we see women making history: Kamala Harris is the first woman and person of color to hold the office of vice president. The United States is on track to have 12 cabinet positions held by women—including eight women of color (Harris included)—shattering previous records.

But what do Kamala Harris and these 11 other women have to do with the many women in leadership across the United States who need to work but who are also being pulled heavily toward home with children to care for and virtual school to support? Are we at a positive inflection point, or is there more work to do, given how many women are struggling to remain employed and hold onto the progress they’ve made advancing their careers?

Countless recent articles and research have highlighted the layers to the challenges facing women in the workforce. The crushing weight of the pandemic has forced record numbers of women to leave their jobs, either temporarily or permanently. Nearly three million women in the United States have dropped out of the labor force in the past year, plagued by the competing responsibilities of work and home.1 Further complicating the challenge is the fact that gender roles continue to dictate that women bear the brunt of home and childcare pressures, reinforcing the inequities they have, for years, battled against. 

The result? Not just lost wages and the personal toll, but lost productivity and lost innovation. This loss will hit companies where it often hurts the most—the bottom line. Company profits and share performance is almost 50 percent higher when women are in leadership positions.2 More women and people of color means greater diversity and the increased likelihood that new talent will be motivated to join companies.

Just as women are reaching previously unimaginable professional successes, many have been forced to abandon them—and the companies lose out too.

How do we address this paradox? Do we celebrate our successes? Or do we redouble our efforts to support women in all areas of the workforce, including leadership positions? The answer is, we do both.

We need to take actions at macro and micro levels to address the challenges women face, not only to advance to senior-level positions, but, for many, to simply remain employed while balancing the additional burden, and joys, of caring for children and maintaining household responsibilities. We need to look at the boulders, and the pebbles, that are in the way of further progress.  

Here are a few ways to address the paradox:

  • Examine policies and procedures. Examine policies and practices to evaluate who is being hired and promoted. Are those policies inclusive? Is there an inherent disadvantage in policies for working moms? Look for hidden biases that might disadvantage women and create barriers to entry. For example, screening criteria that look for gaps in employment can disadvantage working moms whose lapses come from pregnancy, childbirth, and caring for small children. 
    • Ensure that you are hiring for qualifications and not for “fit,” which can often be code for “like us,” so you can improve diversity.  If, as an organization, you articulate the value of inclusion, make sure that your corporate policies and leadership practices are, in fact, consistent with that value. 
    • Extend the same transparency to promotional practices. Be clear about what standards individuals need to meet in order to move up, and evaluate all individuals equally and fairly against those standards. 
  • Be an ally. By taking an active role in advancing the culture of inclusion through intentional efforts, you can become an ally. Attend Employee Resource Groups, take on policy and procedure review, and support policies such as flex time and paid parental leave.    
  • Self reflect. Ask yourself what you are doing as a leader to let the women on your team know that they are heard and valued. What are you hearing from the women in your organization? What are they saying they need to be successful? Have you asked that question and then truly listened for understanding?
    • Sharpen your active listening skills and notice how often the women on your team contribute. Are they getting equal “airtime”? Are their voices being diminished or amplified? When they contribute a strong idea, is that idea validated and carried forward? Or does that only happen when it’s repeated or reframed by a male colleague? Anchor back to their contributions and acknowledge their ideas.
    • Draw out your more reticent employees and give them the space to share their thoughts at a pace that works for them and respects their communication style.
  • Be a sponsor. Sponsors are people who actively champion a project, group, or person and use their positional power, expertise, advocacy, and influence to help others. Be a sponsor by exploring development opportunities—both formal and informal—for the women on your team. Learning journeys, stretch assignments, coaching, and mentoring are opportunities for employees to develop. Proactively engage in career conversations and help women expand their career communities so they can network more easily. When your organization is discussing promotions, make a conscious effort to advocate for the contributions of the women in your team.
  • Take action. Be responsible for yourself but also hold others accountable. Watch your words and those of others. The words that we say matter and the context in which we say them matters. Women who are on the receiving end of verbal or nonverbal behavior or actions that make them feel less than or othered, often known as microaggressions, feel their impact profoundly.
    • Tune in to these painful slights and spend time reflecting on their impact and strategizing how you can address them. Speak up when you see them happening, even if those conversations are difficult. Model the behaviors of an inclusive leader.
    • Empathize by putting yourself in the seats of the working moms in your organization.  This doesn’t mean swapping stories about your kids’ latest escapades. Instead, stop and tune in to what these moms share. Put yourself in the shoes, in the mind, in the heart of that parent to understand the struggle. Do you hear the pain and frustration? Listening to working moms is about relating in a way that gives space for the struggle to be heard and not judged. Because the struggle is real. 

So, what is the single biggest thing that leaders, men and women, can do in your organization to address the paradox—to celebrate women’s accomplishments while continuing to support the women in your organization? From Washington to Zoom calls to the kitchen tables of working moms, what can leaders do to support the women on their teams? In short, clear away obstacles—both big and small. The obstacles that prevent good, strong, talented women from being hired and advancing. And the obstacles that prevent them from speaking up, staying engaged, or simply remaining employed. As leaders, that’s our job. Whether it’s a barrier to inclusive hiring or challenges associated with childcare, women aren’t asking us to solve their problems. But what we can do is partner with them to clear the obstacles that are in the way of their solution. Work together to take the boulders and the pebbles and line them up so they no longer get in the way, but instead create a path to greater progress.

1 Pew Research

2Sundiatu Dixon-Fyle, Kevin Dolan, Vivian Hunt, and Sara Prince, “Diversity wins: How inclusion matters,” May 19, 2020.

About the Authors

Leah Clark

Director, Strategy and Planning, GP Strategies Corporation Leah leads Strategy and Planning for BlessingWhite, a Division of GP Strategies, focusing on bringing new products to market and enhancing the participant experience. She works with clients to understand their leadership and engagement challenges and consults with them on the creative solutions. Prior to joining BlessingWhite, Leah had her own practice in executive coaching and consulting. She is a certified professional coach through an ICF accredited organization and is a Myers-Briggs practitioner. Leah has over seventeen years of experience in marketing, strategy, and product development in a corporate environment. She has also served as an adjunct faculty member in the fields of psychology and organizational psychology. She has a Master’s of Arts degree in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University and a Bachelor of Arts in English and Sociology from Boston College where she graduated summa cum laude.