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Bringing gender balance into the boardroom

"Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world" is the theme for International Woman’s Day this year, highlighting the role women have been playing at the forefront of the global pandemic.

Recent research by McKinsey suggests that while women represent 39 percent of the global workforce, they have accounted for more than half of the job losses during the pandemic. However, the World Economic Forum’s gender report highlights that the role model effect is starting to have an impact in terms of leadership and pay, with a growing number of women in senior private sector roles. Yet, women are still underrepresented the public sector. Women are Heads of State or Government in 22 countries and with the current rate of progress, gender equality among these leading roles will take another 130 years.

The glass cliff phenomenon

The phenomenon referred to as the glass cliff is relative to the term glass ceiling - the invisible barrier to advancement that women often face when they are up for promotion to a leadership role. The glass cliff occurs when an organisation is facing difficult times and a woman is put in charge to fix it, highlighting that when women are finally given a chance to prove themselves in a leadership position, they are put in a situation where the chances of failure are high.

New research from January 2021 found that outcomes related to Covid-19, including a number of cases and deaths, were systematically better in countries led by women. Another study looked at governors in the U.S. and similarly found that states with female leaders had lower fatality rates, indicating their ability to successfully navigate the crisis, which might explain why they are handled challenging situations.

Over the last few years, there has been an increasing number of organisations that see value in having more female leaders on their boards. But there is sometimes a bigger obstacle women face earlier in their career – their step up to a management position. This early inequality can have a long-term impact on the talent pipeline.

On average, there are more men at a manager level, which means that there are less women to hire or promote to senior manager positions. The number of women decreases at every subsequent level and even as hiring and promotion rates improve, on the whole, women can’t really catch up. Therefore, having the right policies, culture and resources to support female employees to progress their careers within the organisations are key to achieve their full potential.

Sponsorship from the top

Up until this year, only one Black woman had been CEO of a Fortune 500 company. For more women to step up into the C-suite, especially those of colour, they need a clear path to the top with direct sponsorship and support. Sponsorship has proven to be a powerful tool for male leaders and the gender gap can be addressed reviewing succession plans regularly. Setting objective hiring and promotion processes with clear evaluation criteria can also prevent unconscious bias and allow more women to move up in their career, as well as inspire others to step up. In combination with management support and senior sponsorship, these processes can help to create a workplace that delivers equal and fair opportunities for all.

Diverse teams are more productive, more innovative and more engaged. They also improve company culture and boost financial performance. According to LinkedIn, 78 percent of talent professionals see diversity as a top hiring priority and gender diversity in particular is a number one issue. At Acumen, we pride ourselves in offering development that gives managers practical tools to help solve real-life challenges. We offer an extensive menu of courses, workshops and coaching programmes, ranging from communication skills through to executive leadership development. In most cases, we design the interventions specifically for each client, but we also offer a wide range of off-the-shelf programmes for those who prefer this approach. For more information about our programmes please contact Simon at

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