May 5, 2021

The Pipeline of Women in Leadership Is Shrinking. Here’s What Businesses Can Do to Change That.

The shift to remote work at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic put the spotlight on the incredible pressures working women face both in their careers and at home. Businesses more clearly saw the load of a “second shift” of family responsibilities that many women shoulder once their day jobs end, with working mothers especially bearing the brunt of childcare and eldercare responsibilities.

Burnout and mental health issues are top of mind for many employers who depend on their talent as their competitive advantage, especially in this environment of uncertainty and constant change. It has now been almost a year since the global lockdowns began. While much has been said, not enough has been done to address gender equity issues, many of which existed before the pandemic but were exacerbated by the circumstances at hand.

We’ve seen female participation in the US labor force hit a 33-year low, according to the National Women’s Law Center. And yet, a new study from the IBM Institute for Business Value shows that gender equity is not a top 10 business priority for 70 percent of global organizations surveyed.

While the study shows more organizations are instituting more programs to improve gender equality and inclusion compared to 2019, that hasn’t translated to better outcomes because mindsets and cultures have not shifted. For example, compared to two years ago, 25 percent fewer repeat organizations agreed that senior executives openly challenge gender-biased behaviors and language.

When we look at the leadership ranks, the pipeline for women in executive-level roles has shrunk significantly since 2019. Fewer women surveyed hold senior vice president, vice president, director, and manager roles in 2021 than two years ago.

This is not just a problem for today. Without effective and immediate interventions, the loss of future leadership talent poses a long-term risk for organizations and the economy as a whole. This is exacerbated by some concerning talent trends. For example, a recent study by IBM found less than half of CEOs say they have the skills they need to successfully execute their people strategies. At the same time, research conducted during the pandemic found a significant disconnect between what leaders and employees believe about how effectively companies are addressing these gaps. For example, 74 percent of executives believe they have been helping their employees learn the skills needed to work in a new way, but just 38 percent of employees agree. Eighty percent of employers say that they are supporting the physical and emotional health of their workforces, but only 46 percent of employees say they feel that support.

There is a path to sustainable progress, and it starts with making bold commitments to ensure women have the means necessary to reenter the workforce. Simultaneously, organizations need to put programs in place to recruit, retain, and promote women to leadership roles.

Pair Bold Thinking With Big Commitments

Organizations must first make gender equity a formal business priority. That will require driving accountability with specific, measurable goals across every level of leadership.

It’s also important to establish programs to bring women back into the workplace and invest in future talent with skills programs that make it easier for women to enter high-growth fields. For example, IBM created a Tech Re-Entry Program, a six-month paid returnship for technical professionals who have been out of the workforce for 12 months or longer.

Use Technologies Like AI to Accelerate Performance

When effectively designed, AI can flag gender-, age-, and ethnicity-biased language. This can help improve fairness and infuse inclusion throughout the talent life cycle.

One great example of a company using technology to support diversity in recruiting is global biopharmaceutical leader Takeda. Takeda partnered with IBM during the pandemic to drive continued focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in talent acquisition by proactively sourcing and supporting female talent, hosting virtual career events in the LGBTQ+ community, and using AI to analyze and make recommendations on unconscious bias in messaging and recruiting materials like job descriptions.

Companies can also consider adopting cloud-based digital tools for communication and feedback to better understand how women are doing and what they need to feel fully supported. Frequent miniature pulse surveys can generate data-driven insights into the impact COVID-19 has had on women’s careers and how all employees are doing in the face of external and internal issues, such as the pandemic, racial injustice, and business changes. The feedback gathered from these surveys can also help organizations pinpoint the specific programs and benefits that could make a difference.

Create a Culture of Intention and Insist on Making Room

Empathetic leadership is critical during this moment of crisis. Leaders have a better understanding than ever of the context in which their employees are working. At a team level, they should focus on creating environments that are flexible to accommodate individuals’ personal and professional needs. In addition, leaders need to make it a mantra to always ask “Who’s missing?” to ensure they’re sourcing fresh perspectives and creating teams that reflect the world in which we live.

More broadly, organizations should consider programs and policies that support flexible work locations and schedules and create cultural commitments that respect work/life boundaries. The need for this is clear: 77 percent of outperforming company CEOs surveyed by IBM report they plan to prioritize employee well-being even if it affects near-term profitability, compared to 39 percent of underperformers. This reflects the fact that top performers are heavily focused on their people at this moment.

A company’’ visible focus on supporting its people — or not — could make the difference when a prospect is choosing an employer. One in four consumers surveyed by IBM globally plan to switch employers in 2021, citing the need for a more flexible work schedule or location and increased benefits and support for their well-being as key motivators of their decisions.

Although the pandemic may have slowed the progress of gender equity in the workforce, we can reverse the trend and build more equitable workplaces that set women up for success if organizations make the right bold steps right now. Doing so will help women, men, and society as a whole.

Elizebeth Varghese is global leader of talent and HR strategy reinvention for IBM Global Business Services.

Read more in Leadership

Elizebeth Varghese partners with CEOs and C-suite leaders to create powerful business outcomes and experiences for organizations operating around the world — and in space. As a business leader, trusted C-suite advisor, and board director, Elizebeth furthers people and technology strategies with solutions in artificial intelligence, blockchain, and robotics. She is recognized as a global Top 100 Influencer for her continuing thought leadership in HR strategy and analytics. She is an international best-selling author on leadership and management.

Elizebeth is an IBM Partner and leads IBM's Talent and HR Transformation Strategy client services. She is also the community leader for IBM's Space Exploration Services and a member of the Good Technology team.

Elizebeth is on the Council of Advisors for The SETI Institute, which works with NASA and other space agencies to explore, understand, and explain the origin and nature of life in the universe and the evolution of intelligence. She is on the board of SAYA, a nonprofit providing education support. She has dual MBAs from Columbia Business School and London Business School and lives in Manhattan with her husband and children