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Study Finds Pandemic Presented Women With New Challenges and Opportunities

KPMG’s annual report on women in business leadership finds empathy and flexibility are crucial going forward.

Courtesy of KPMG
Courtesy of KPMG

“Women leaders in particular are finding that empathetic leadership — when they bring their whole self to work, when they are a little bit vulnerable, and when they share with fellow employees what they are going through — enables them to better connect with employees who are struggling,” says Laura Newinski, deputy chair and chief operating officer of KPMG.

During its recent Women’s Leadership Summit, which took place virtually on June 23, KPMG presented the results of its annual study “Advancing the Future of Women in Business.” A comprehensive survey of 900 female executives just steps away from the C-suite in over 150 of the world’s leading finance, entertainment, media, retail, energy and industrial businesses, the study confirmed what many have observed anecdotally: COVID-19 increased responsibilities for female executives in the workplace and at home.

“The pandemic affected all women in the workplace,” says Newinski. “But it affected executive women in a different way.”

Executive women had to take on more management responsibilities while working from home and juggling childcare, eldercare and often more domestic chores, prompting both employees and corporations to find comprises and solutions to generate resiliency.

KPMG was among the companies that implemented new policies, including “heads-down Wednesdays,” “camera-free Fridays” and shorter meeting times.

“People felt like they needed to have a time to work without the interruption of meetings, so our firm quieted down so employees could really get after the work that was in front of them,” Newinski says, referring to “heads-down Wednesdays” in particular.

KPMG’s study revealed that 76% of the women surveyed adopted new activities and routines to not only renew focus at work, but also to take care of their overall well-being.

Newinski notes that “no camera Fridays” have been “incredibly helpful” to employees’ mental health because it allows them to avoid being exhausted by the state of constantly “being on.”

According to the study, 96% of those surveyed said that in the last 15 months, shifting to a state of resilience proved critical to the advancement of their careers. When asked to define resilience, respondents cited words such as “optimism,” “adaptability” and “agility” — but when asked about showing resilience during the pandemic, they responded with “empathy,” “compassion” and “grace.”

That empathetic style gave many women an advantage. Nearly all the survey’s respondents (96%) incorporated or increased their use of empathetic leadership to help motivate their teams in response to a myriad of pandemic-related issues, including stressing open lines of communication, intentional listening and inclusivity.

By placing transparency and vulnerability at the forefront of leadership, Newinski says female executives found they were able to lead in a “uniquely affirming way.”

The study also showed that female executives need encouragement and support, with some 84% of the women polled saying mentors played a vital role in helping them to develop resilience, and 64% reporting their professional support networks were critical to their well-being and growth during the last year.

“Mentors have always been important in helping women to take smart risks, manage through change and lean into their values during times of change,” says Newinski. “This crisis required change. So organizations that cultivated inclusive environments and offered strong support networks that included mentors and sponsors helped women navigate these challenges, and helped them advance and grow in their careers.”

She adds that mentors also helped reduce the old pattern of women leaving high-pressure careers to start a family.

“We’re seeing that women are absolutely finding mentors and role models to help them with that change in their life at a time when they might choose to leave, and they’re not. We’re finding they are staying in at KPMG,” Newinski explains. “That trend is definitely strengthening and gaining speed and momentum.”

As for returning to the office, Newinski says the key word will be flexibility.

“There is no single formula that is going to be work,” she says. “KPMG will have people who will be working entirely remotely. And we will have people who will want and need to come back to the office almost all the time.

“We think there’s going to be a great majority of people who find a hybrid model that fits with what they need personally, with what our clients need in order to have excellent service, and with what the firm needs to be able to make sure that we’re developing our employees in the best possible way. So this hybrid mix is absolutely in front of us.”