4 ways to support women’s leadership progression in the hybrid world

Hybrid work has both positively and negatively impacted women and their ability to advance into leadership roles. HR leaders should follow four steps to ensure their culture and processes support increased gender parity in leadership in the hybrid workplace.

Increasing the number of women in leadership is a goal for many organizations, with many facing growing pressures to diversify their leadership benches. Gartner research shows almost half of employees report it is extremely or very important that their organization’s leadership is diverse

Reaching gender parity is a key step in achieving greater leadership diversity in general, but the pandemic set back many of these efforts. In a 2021 Gartner survey, 65 percent of women reported the pandemic had made them rethink the place that work should have in their lives. And nearly 70 percent of women with children agree the pandemic has changed how they value certain aspects of their life outside of work.  

At the same time, while hybrid work has made it easier to balance work and caregiving, it has also worsened issues like visibility and burnout that will disadvantage women disproportionately if not corrected. 

To support women’s leadership progression, HR leaders should build hybrid workplaces that support their organizations’ diversity goals, beginning with four strategies:

  1. Support flexible work through role modeling

Flexible work can help women caregivers better manage their work and home responsibilities, allowing a greater capacity to rise to leadership roles. 

However, flexible work will not be as effective in supporting women’s rise to leadership if only women take advantage of those policies. HR leaders should make sure that hybrid or flexible work is viewed as the default working model at the organization – not the exception. 

When HR leaders at a UK-based company designed their flexible work strategy, they recognized that if both leaders and managers were always in the office then employees would feel pressure to be in the office too. Therefore, they identified actions different stakeholders could take to personally support working flexibly. For instance, a senior leader could share personal stories of flexible work and act as a role model by adopting a flexible work schedule. 

After implementing this policy, 83 percent of employees scored the company favorably for inclusion, demonstrating that this approach to flexible work can yield benefits for organizations looking to create a positive work environment for all employees. 

  1. Consciously address proximity bias 

In a hybrid workplace, women are more likely than men to take advantage of remote work, and as a result, they may suffer from proximity bias.

Gartner research shows 59 percent of women knowledge workers think in-office workers will be seen as higher performers and 78 percent think in-office workers are more likely to be promoted. This is echoed by business leaders – among respondents to an earlier Gartner survey, 64 percent believe onsite workers are higher performers and 76 percent say onsite workers are more likely to get promoted. 

This proximity bias could easily become a gender bias issue, resulting in fewer women being promoted to leadership positions. One method for HR leaders to address proximity bias is by implementing inclusion nudges. Inclusion nudges are small, mental pushes that gently confront leaders’ biases and prompt more inclusive behaviors. This can be as simple as adding pictures to organizational charts, so leaders can visually see the diversity of their leadership bench or conducting blind resume reviews. 

  1. Rethink assumptions on leadership aspirations 

Typically, aspiration to leadership is perceived as constant and linear. Employees who want to become senior leaders consistently work their way up the ranks, taking on more management responsibilities with every new role. However, many women don’t have linear career paths – some women scale back their careers when they have young children or take career breaks. 

Unfortunately, many women with shifting aspirations or nontraditional career paths discount themselves from leadership positions when they return to the workplace, fearing they won’t make strong candidates.

To progress women in leadership, organizations should broaden their searches and not overlook women whose unique experiences and career paths could make them more adaptable, authentic leaders. 

HR leaders should also work to destigmatize career breaks. Leading organizations are now developing programs for people who have been out of the workforce for at least two years. These initiatives provide mentorship and skill-building support before participants transition back to full-time careers – signaling to women that taking time off won’t disqualify them from future leadership roles. 

  1. Support high performers without increasing burnout 

The lack of boundaries between work and home life is a common issue that contributes to burnout. And in today’s work environment, women are burning out at a higher rate. In 2021, women were 23 percent more likely than men to say they felt burned out. 

If HR leaders don’t manage burnout among their high-performing women, they risk these women either opting out of leadership roles or leaving the organization entirely. 

Employers can address burnout among high performing women by allowing them to take proactive rest without discounting them from leadership roles. Specifically, proactive rest should be embedded into workflows to prevent burnout – rather than being used to recover from it. 

Though the rise of hybrid work has highlighted and intensified issues that have always affected gender parity in leadership, it has also presented a unique opportunity for organizations to radically redefine the purpose, structure and nature of work. HR leaders must design workplaces and policies that eliminate the barriers women face in progressing to leadership roles.