Women have made great strides in the workplace to hold leadership positions across industries. From C-suite to founders, female leaders have the power to make changes and the experience to influence growth.
But, it’s still not a level playing field. According to McKinsey’s report ‘Women in the Workplace 2022’, only one in four C-suite leaders is a woman while only one in twenty is a woman of color. Researchers believe this is because many women face obstacles that are forcing them to leave their jobs to seek out equitable, supportive, and inclusive workplaces.
In this article, we’ll examine what makes a good leader and get insights and advice from women leaders and founders in an evolving workplace.
- What makes a good leader
- What are the greatest challenge/s for female leaders?
- What obstacles do women face in the workplace?
- What can help women to become good leaders?
- What’s the future for women in leadership roles?
What makes a good leader?
A good leader can communicate, empower and influence. While their role is to drive commercial growth and success, it’s also to motivate a workforce to work towards a shared goal or vision.
“The most exceptional leaders that I have witnessed are the ones that are masters at understanding and reading all people and inferring or even anticipating how their teams are thinking and feeling at an organisational, team, and individual level,” says Rebecca Moore, COO of Simple Online Healthcare.
Good leadership is not just about taking the helm and driving forward at all costs. The success of a leader is determined by how they communicate with employees at all levels. This means understanding that everyone is in it together and it’s the leader’s job to show up for everyone.
While leadership roles are dominated by men, it’s women that excel at ‘showing up’ in the workplace. McKinsey found that women are better than men at providing emotional support to employees (19% of men vs. 31% of women), checking in on employees’ wellbeing (54% of men vs. 61% of women), and better at helping navigate work-life challenges (24% of men vs. 29% of women).
Joanna Lord, CMO, Board Member, Tech Advisor & Investor believes “the best leaders share a lot of common traits. They have exceptionally strong EQ (emotional IQ), are proactive, invest and empower those around them, and fundamentally show up as their true self in a very human, approachable and real way.”
How has the workplace changed for women?
Data from the Office for National Statistics reported that there are two million more women in employment in the United Kingdom than there were in 2010 – resulting in 15.7 million women working.
There has also been a progression in the number of women working in senior roles. Those working as managers, directors, and senior officials have risen by almost 25%, while women in high-skilled jobs have increased by 38% over the past decade.
This increase is due to the introduction of measures such as childcare support, equal pay legislation, and job care support packages. It’s also down to easier access to education, more flexible working opportunities and employer programmes that aim to help women return to work after having a child.
While the introduction of policies and employer programs has helped narrow the gender gap in the workplace, there’s still a substantial gap. This is particularly true when it comes to leadership and entrepreneurial roles.
The graphic below shows the transition from entry-level to C-suite across genders and races. While the percentage representation increases for white men, the number steadily decreases for white women and dramatically falls for women of colour.
“I’ve definitely seen the path to leadership transform in the 18 years, but we are not yet at a point where there isn’t a consistent need for more resilience, more effort, and more determination from a female leader than her average male counterpart,” says Moore.
“There is still that expectation of being perfect both in family life and professional life, and that any stress coming from that was “your choice, don’t complain about it”, which contributes to the feeling of constantly being expected to deliver overall more work while always seeming perfectly happy and in control.”
FACT: By 2026, all companies with more than 250 people should have at least 40% of non-executive director posts or 33% of all director posts occupied by women – European Commission
What obstacles do women face in the workplace?
When speaking to female leaders one of the biggest obstacles women face in the workplace is perception.
Traditionally, women have been thought of as a ‘caring’ gender with responsibility for providing childcare. This now only puts women in a box but also puts limits on job opportunities and career progression as they try to juggle their roles at work and home.
“One of the greatest challenges comes down to how we are perceived. We are often put in a box of ‘people-pleasing, community-first, and diplomatic’ in nature. I think many leaders we work for assume we will ‘fill this need’ and be the ‘human face’ of the organization,” says Lord. “While we are often exceptional as the people-first side of leadership, we are also capable of so much more.”
This mindset across society has led to the creation of a male-dominant management model that’s outdated and does not cater to women’s needs. Lower down an organisation — and at a time when half of the potential new management recruits are female — institutional structures built around the male life cycle often still rule, reports the Financial Times.
“There are studies that show that women are more drawn to egalitarian structures, whilst men much prefer hierarchical structures. Yet almost all businesses insist on hierarchical structures. There are theories that stem right back to our early hunter-gatherer psyche when men needed to know their relative position to be able to carry out effective hunts. Is this still relevant? Could we do it another way?” asks Moore.
Barriers to success become even more pronounced for female entrepreneurs, a career path that’s incompatible with its intensive demands and need for balance.
According to ‘Pathways: A new approach for women in entrepreneurship’ of the companies in Scotland that received external investment in 2022, only 12% were female-led while 73% were male-led. Over the past five years, only 2% of institutional investment went to businesses led by women.
“When I was younger I questioned whether I should try and be more ‘alpha’ to lead. In the end, I decided that it wouldn’t be authentic and my style of collaborative leadership had a lot of value and is who I am,” says Darina Garland, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Ooni. “In general women can struggle more to be heard, to cut through the noise in male-dominated settings, and to be taken seriously from the off.”
FACT: 37% of women leaders have had a coworker get credit for their idea, compared to 27% of men leaders – McKinsey & Co
What can help women to become great leaders?
With so many challenges and obstacles for women striving to be leaders, it’s important to understand what supports can help advance and strengthen careers.
Let’s explore four effective examples of how the corporate and start-up world can help women with leadership aspirations.
1. Offer mentorship or coaching
Women can benefit from mentorship either within an organisation or from an external source. The most effective mentors shouldn’t just focus on simple advice but provide sponsorship to guide a career.
Research from the U.K’s Government Equalities Office, ‘Women’s Progression in the Workplace’ states that interventions, such as mentoring and employee support groups which attempt to increase career capital and reduce the social isolation of women, can have positive effects on progression, but suggests they have a greater impact on subjective outcomes, such as satisfaction.
“Pair women with senior women mentors in the wider industry to ensure that women leaders don’t have to conform to the archetypes of previous male leaders in the company,” says Check Warner, Co-founder & Partner at Ada Ventures.
2. Review working policies
A lot of working policies in place do not support women in the workplace. One of the main things that women need and want is flexibility and having to work full-time in an office makes it difficult to juggle work and life particularly when a family is involved.
A culture of overwork is also an issue for women as promises are made to clients or partners and hours of work are required to achieve them, hours above and beyond what’s required in a working week. This leads to burnout and a decrease in performance.
The Covid pandemic has shifted these ways of working as hybrid and remote working are now common across industries and workplaces allowing for a better work/life balance.
Moore says that “the post-covid world has been very freeing for women. Having many more hybrid set-ups makes the blend between family and work much easier, so that is a positive. It should make opportunities that previously may have felt not feasible all of a sudden an option.”
3. Review salaries and remuneration
Despite legislation being introduced the gender pay gap is still common across industries. According to the EU Commission, the gender pay gap in Europe stands at nearly 13% in 2021 and has only changed minimally over the last decade. It means that women earn an average of 13% less per hour than men.
“The most obvious thing businesses can do to support women on our journey to become leaders is to pay us. Pay us what we’re worth so we can have the same freedoms and flexibility to invest in ourselves, our career journeys, and our financial futures as our male counterparts,” says Lord.
Along with salary, another area to look at is funding women’s professional development through courses, coaching and training. This demonstrates that a company values its female staff and wants to invest in their talent and future.
4. Embed diversity and inclusion in company culture
Diversity and inclusion (D&I) have become important to employees when they choose a place to work. A culture that embraces D&I allows everyone to be treated equally regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation.
Research has found that the relationship between diversity on executive teams and the likelihood of financial outperformance has strengthened over time. McKinsey & Company research found that companies with more than 30% women executives were more likely to outperform companies where this percentage ranged from 10 to 30.
Despite the benefits and value of having female leaders, progress has been slow with more than a third of companies in the research still having no women on their executive teams.
Moore believes the solution is to collaborate. “Work with your current and aspiring female leaders to constantly assess where we have beliefs, structures, and norms that work against or disadvantage women. Push your organisation to constantly find new ways to level the playing field. Get inventive and curious about it.”
What’s the future for women in leadership roles?
There are so many female leaders to take inspiration from and many are making waves in the corporate and start-up worlds.
In 2022, women in the UK launched 151,603 companies, up from 145,271 in 2021 and more than twice the level in 2018, according to an independent review by the NatWest Group and covered in the FT.
This record number sees women account for a larger proportion of new companies than ever before. While Grant Thornton’s ‘Women in Business report’ found that the number of women in senior management positions in UK businesses is at a record high and is continuing to steadily climb.
Against the odds and despite the challenges, women are progressing into leadership roles whether that’s in senior management or board level at a company or starting on their own to steer a thriving business. So what do the women leaders we talked to believe needs to change to help women succeed over the next five years?
Check Warner wants to see “a much more flexible structure for work where men and women can have more control over their time and be more productive in how they work, more empathy in people leadership, and more inclusive workplace cultures.”
“I would hope that in 5 years we haven’t just progressed as female leaders, but we’ve accelerated the speed at which that progress is happening,” says Joanna Lord. “This will require big steps forward across areas like workplace policy, compensation standards, and learning and development areas. But I’m here for it, and can’t wait to see where we get.”
Darina Garland would like to “see a much more balanced leadership in the next 5 years. If we model and champion great women leaders and work with young people to let them know they can and should too and then create programmes to support this development, then things should go in the right direction.”
“I think a lot of girls in my generation were raised on the notion that “you can have it all”. But the reality is you can’t. You can have more bits of all of it, but there are always trade-offs and sacrifices,” says Rebecca Moore. “We can still lessen the impact of these trade-offs and sacrifices; I hope we see more of that in the next 5 years, too.”
The future seems bright for women in leadership roles, it’s up to companies and the marketplace to recognise their value, create a supportive environment for growth and improve access to funding.