COVID-19 is an opportunity for female leaders to thrive. Here’s why.

COVID-19 is an opportunity for female leaders to thrive
27 July, 2020
Katelijne Pee
Talent & Capability Career Practice Leader, Mercer


While the COVID-19 crisis has clearly had many negative impacts, among these are opportunities. One such opportunity is for leaders to thrive – and in particular, female leaders.


The common consensus is that the economic implications of the COVID-19 crisis disproportionately affect women – and that as a result, it is a temporary setback towards gender equality in the workplace. This is due in part to remote working and the heightened caring responsibilities created by the pandemic. Many women have shouldered the caring responsibilities of their family, looking after elderly or sick family members and taking on the majority of the home schooling responsibilities, while either balancing the demands of their paid employment - or taking unpaid time off.


Mercer’s When Women Thrive research has highlighted that across industries, women continue to face such challenges and more – irrespective of the pandemic. Unequal pay persists, and the absence of support systems to balance work and family responsibilities means women struggle to advance their careers at the same rate as men. The pandemic has only served to magnify and intensify these challenges. Women are more likely to work in frontline healthcare roles, directly exposed to the dangers of the coronavirus. They are also more likely to engage in casual work, making them more at risk of being financially impacted. And women often rely on flexible working options or reduced hours to help juggle responsibilities at home, making their roles potentially more vulnerable to redundancy in the longer term.


In spite of these challenges, the current crisis has provided a platform for women to emerge as leaders in ways and within timeframes entirely unimaginable before. Examples of extremely effective female leaders in countries such as Iceland, New Zealand, Finland, and Denmark has brought female leadership to the fore. What is it about these women that has enabled them to become so extraordinarily successful? How are they approaching things differently from their male counterparts and in a way that makes them excel well beyond expectations? What can we learn from this to accelerate gender equality in Australian workplaces?


The pandemic has highlighted particular strengths and abilities which are vital in dealing with extreme crises. This is an opportunity for female leaders to demonstrate their aptitude in these areas. Likely as a result of their more traditional roles as caregivers and multi-taskers, women are often better equipped to handle the challenging and competing priorities of building a career, looking after the children and keeping the household going – all at the same time! 


As consultants who assess leadership and talent daily, we have observed trends in the leadership characteristics often displayed by women. Their typically higher levels of EQ and their approach to dealing with personal obstacles in life can set truly successful female leaders apart. They have the potential to lead with:


  • Humility, compassion and patience – showing up as humane leaders who feel comfortable showing their “whole self”
  • Superior communication skills – addressing their people regularly, clearly, frequently and with full transparency of information
  • Strong empathetic listening abilities – allowing them to understand people’s motivations and tapping into the emotional drivers of their audience, who feel understood, can relate and rally behind a common sense of purpose
  • Belief and trust in the collective common sense – considering themselves “equal” to everyone else and relying on input from others, which helps in quickly gaining respect and followership
  • High levels of authenticity – shown in their courage to come up with new and different ideas and in their unique ways of stepping forward, while holding true to their personal values
  • Collaborative and nurturing approach – prevalent in their ability to help those around them be their best, and in the way they want to collaborate with others in the decision making process.
  • Resilience – in being able to flex and adapt quickly, change course without much deliberation, and translate ideas into very practical and pragmatic steps.


For females who lead with these characteristics, the pandemic has provided a platform to show the value of their style and boost their career prospects. For organisations with strong representation of female leaders who demonstrate these attributes, the benefit is greater innovation and creativity in their culture. Furthermore, female leaders often foster a more value-driven and egalitarian culture - one that is based on the conviction that complementing both genders at the most senior levels leads to more balanced perspectives, more robust decisions, and ultimately more favourable business results.


These impacts to business performance are well documented. Pre-COVID, the majority of leaders in Australia were already convinced that companies with a more equal gender balance substantially outperform others. In spite of this, there is still much work to be done. Most recent data projections from Mercer’s When Women Thrive 2020 research indicate that, at the current rate, it will take 10 years to increase female representation in the workplace by just five per cent. Therefore, it is now, during a period of extreme crisis, that we are facing the most crucial time for organisations to rethink and refocus their approach to gender diversity. And for females in the workplace, the time is now to demonstrate the essential attributes of leadership in order to take their seat at the table.


The road to recovery will only be successful if organisations continue to make significant progress on their diversity strategies. This will ensure that they remain competitive, profitable and attractive - and can recharge for growth by attracting and retaining female talent at a time when it matters most.


Our people...

Katelijne Pee
Talent & Capability Career Practice Leader, Mercer

Katelijne Pee 
Talent & Capability Career Practice Leader, Mercer

Katelijne is a Melbourne-based Principal at Mercer who has worked across both European and Australian companies as a Management Consultant, and across many top 100 ASX companies in a broad range of industries, including Financial Services, Pharmaceuticals, Manufacturing, Professional Services, Construction and Mining.

Katelijne brings deep leadership and talent experience and collaborates with organisations and businesses to deliver on their growth agenda through assessing and uplifting leadership capability. As a trusted advisor on complex people and talent decisions, Katelijne partners with her clients to build leadership bench strength and delivers holistic solutions that help solve their most critical talent challenges - in selection, leadership and talent development and succession.

Katelijne holds a Bachelor of Arts (1st class honours) in Linguistics, a postgraduate degree in languages from Charles University in Prague, and an MBA. 

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