It took decades of hard work, but women were finally starting to gain some momentum in terms of representation at the highest levels of leadership.

Between 1997 and 2009, the percentage of companies with female CEOs increased more than sixfold, and women-held top executive positions were up 86 percent. By 2017, 87 percent of S&P 500 companies had a woman on their board, up from just 60 percent in 2002.

But just as the tide was starting to shift, COVID-19 hit, the economy did a somersault, and many of our hard-fought (and well-deserved) gains were washed away. As schools and daycares closed at a moment’s notice, women bore the brunt of the burden. As a result, more than 5 million of us lost our jobs or were forced to quit — leaving women with a smaller share of the total job market than we’ve had at any point since 1988.

Now our progress in executive suites and boardrooms has remained stagnant over the past two years. And the pipeline for getting women into those positions — senior vice president, vice president, director and manager roles — is drying up. According to a 2021 report from IBM, “Without effective, immediate interventions, the loss of future leadership talent poses a long-term risk for organizations and for the economy as a whole.”

It’s time to tackle this problem head-on — and women business leaders are the people to do it.

I believe that with a little creativity and a lot more of the grit we’re famous for, we can create workplaces that build women up so we can start regaining the momentum we had pre-pandemic. Here are five steps I believe we need to take to make it happen:

1. Get next-level flexible.

One of the big reasons that women have been hit harder than men is that even in heterosexual couples where both partners work, women carry the lion’s share of the childcare, eldercare and household management. When the pandemic hit, what was already a challenging (and can we say it: unfair?) situation became untenable. As business leaders, chore balance isn’t within our control. However, we can recognize that this is reality for many of the women we work with. Ensuring flexibility has always been important — research shows that it has major effects on physical and mental health — but perhaps never more so than now, as women are trying to get back into the workforce after an insanely challenging year.

2. Make it fun (and I don’t mean snacks and foosball).

We’ve just been through a collective existential event, and a lot of us are wondering: Am I doing what I want to be doing with my life? When the answer is no, many women are recognizing they have choices — especially with so many recruiters banging down their doors. As leaders, it’s on us to make sure that when women ask themselves those important questions, their answer is yes at least nine days out of 10. If it isn’t, we need to shape work within their boundaries before they jump ship. I call it the “fun factor,” but it’s really about making our teams feel engaged and valued. And it pays dividends: Engaged employees have fewer health issues and are more likely to recommend their company to others.

3. Double-down on diversity.

When companies started looking for ways to cut spending, diversity and inclusion initiatives were among the first on the chopping block. That’s tragic considering the fact that women of color left the workforce at higher rates than any other group during the pandemic — and they’re struggling the most to regain their footing. Leaders have the opportunity to correct course and bring women of color back into the workforce. One way to do that is by fostering a diversity mindset among your organization, where people are open to new ideas and experiences and the work climate highlights the value of diversity and inclusion. And the value is immense, for both employees and employers. An inclusive workplace results in better team problem solving, improved work engagement, better retention, and more innovation.

4. Value the whole person.

At the heart of diversity and inclusion is truly embracing people as their whole selves — not shoehorning them into some mold we have. While many organizations claim to value women’s voices, they downplay traditionally feminine leadership characteristics like listening and collaboration. Instead they want women to display more stereotypical male traits like control and individual decision making. But these traits are actually less effective, and placing outsize value on them makes women feel like they can’t be their true selves in their jobs. Leaders do best when they value women as they are, including the diverse leadership traits they bring to the table.

5. Foster community.

I think most women will tell you that this past year has felt like an uphill climb (with the occasional boulder rolling down the hill, just to keep you on your toes). Sometimes the only thing that makes a climb bearable is the people who are doing it right alongside you. That’s what community has done for me in the past year — especially the Empowered CMO community, which cultivates authentic, open and inspiring dialogue between women B-to-B marketing executives. I turn to this network for ideas and encouragement all the time, and they always help me meet the moment better than I ever thought I could. I’m a huge advocate for peer-to-peer communities — both for ourselves as leaders and for our employees. They’re good for us, and research shows they improve mental well-being, boost engagement, and strengthen loyalty to the company.


Is it going to be a challenge to regain the momentum we’ve lost during the pandemic? For sure. But I have infinite faith in the creative thinking, compassion and pure tenacity of women leaders — and I know this is a hill we can climb, together.