HR’s most critical leadership concern? Developing women

Recent economic markers indicate the nation is starting to recover from the ravages of COVID-19, both health-wise and economically.

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And as employers set their priorities for the rest of the year, one area that’s in focus for many, according to a recent survey from global outplacement and business and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., is the need to develop women leaders.

It was rated by 93% of business and HR leaders as the most critical leadership issue today. In addition, 88% said “developing leaders with both unseen and seen diversity” is critical post-COVID. The survey findings were collected online from April 14-May 7 from nearly 200 employers of various industries and sizes.

“No doubt, reestablishing women talent is critical to the recovery from the pandemic-induced recession, and leaders are acutely aware that they need this representation in their executive levels and are actively investing in it,” says Andrew Challenger, senior vice president of the firm.

“No doubt, reestablishing women talent is critical to the recovery from the pandemic-induced recession.” – Andrew Challenger, senior vice president,Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

According to the report, a number of economic indicators continue to suggest women, and women of color particularly, are struggling in the labor market. For instance, at the height of the pandemic, nearly 3 million fewer women were employed than pre-pandemic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Also, more than half a million fewer Black women and 478,000 fewer Latinx women over the age of 20 were working in March 2021 than in March 2020. And, women are missing throughout leadership ranks: According to Challenger tracking, less than 23% of incoming CEOs are women, while just 6% of S&P 500 companies have women CEOs.

And although the need to develop women leaders isn’t new, it has become more important. Seventy-six percent of executives deemed it the most critical issue in a pre-COVID Challenger survey. The other top issues at that time were “offering critical feedback” (73%), “effective communication” and “problem-solving” (72% each), and “strategic acumen” (71%).

Related: Why HR needs to stop the clock on the women’s recession

“Prior to the pandemic, the #MeToo movement created much-needed dialogue and action around the experience of women in their professional lives, so it’s not surprising that a high number of business leaders reported that developing women leaders was a critical component pre-COVID, as well,” Challenger says. And, with the renewed focus on racial justice and diversity, creating professional opportunities for those voices to be amplified will be imperative to businesses going forward.

Of the respondents, 66% reported they actively develop talent. Of those, the majority (72%) conduct in-house management training, 64% give regular feedback and 61% engage executive coaching.

“It’s one thing to commit to developing women and diverse leaders,” Challenger says, “but it’s something else to actually do the work. In order to execute on these plans, businesses need to develop and implement policy to create the opportunities for talent to move forward.”

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The survey also found that, during the pandemic, the top issue overall for leaders was “confidence during uncertainty,” selected by 94% of executives; only 30% of executives cited that as important before the pandemic. The other top issues during COVID were “agility” (91%), “effective communication” (90%), “empathy” (89%), and “resilience” (88%).

Of note, 33% of leaders considered “empathy” to be “crucial” before the pandemic; that figure now stands at 72%.

Related: These 4 strategies will help managers lead with empathy

Challenger calls this an “excellent” time for business leaders to inject empathy into their leadership styles.

“Employers will very much need it during the next phase of this pandemic and post-pandemic,” he says, “as their teams deal with how the pandemic, lockdowns and potential other traumas affected them during this past year.”

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