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What the companies faring best in the pandemic have in common

Before the pandemic, there was a certain type of manager that stubbornly resisted employees’ requests for work flexibility because they needed to see their staff in order to feel in control and look busy and important. They didn’t trust their employees as adults to work without close supervision – or rather they didn’t trust themselves to effectively measure employee output and have the hard conversations to help underperformers prove. These managers, like the pointy haired boss in Dilbert, were very much working “bullshit jobs”.

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Now COVID-19 has forced working from home on so many of us, it is time for the true leaders to shine. Management in this context is more about enabling and empowering workers to be more self-sufficient and also taking care of staff wellbeing. It starts at the very top, with senior leaders setting the tone for the business. But how do they score?

A survey of 2009 professionals across Australian capital cities in April and May reveals deep pessimism about how staff believe their workplaces are coping with COVID-19 challenges. The report was done by market research firm Dynata on behalf of the Dream Collective, a diversity and inclusion consultancy.

The good news is that many employers are doing OK on the wellbeing side. Most survey respondents said they felt completely or very much supported by their company during these times. At the same time, most staff believed their company was unable to adapt or innovate during the crisis and was doing a lousy job of keeping staff informed about the impact of the pandemic on the company. Oh dear.

The study found something interesting, though: companies in which the senior leadership was close to 50/50 gender equal were doing relatively better than companies dominated by either male or female senior managers. That’s true across all measures used in the research.

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Companies in which senior leadership was more than 55 per cent men were defined as male-led, and more than 55 per cent women as female-led.

The survey found 46 per cent of respondents at a company with gender-equal senior management believed their company was able to adapt or pivot to the crisis, compared with 44 per cent at female-led companies and 39 per cent at male-led companies.

About a third of respondents working for gender-equal leadership believed their company had the ability to innovate new products and services, compared with 27 per cent at female-led companies and only 20 per cent at male-led companies.

Two-thirds of employees at companies with gender-equal leadership felt supported, compared with 56 per cent at female-led and 54 per cent at male-led firms.

It was similar when the survey respondents were asked to judge if the company’s communications were “sincere and honest”, if managers made decisions with appropriate consideration for the wellbeing of staff and whether they kept staff informed about the company’s financial position and job security.

Male and female chief executives were rated the same, with one exception – companies with female chief executives scored better for their ability to innovate.

The study found companies with gender-equal leadership also had gender-balanced workforces. Women were more likely to work for men than vice versa, with women making up 44 per cent of the workforce at male-led companies, while men accounted for only 32 per cent at female-led companies.

I’m guessing that’s because male-led companies are so much more common that women can’t avoid them without severely limiting their career options. Men might avoid female-led companies but I also suspect female leadership is more common in female-dominated industries.

I don’t believe men or women are inherently more or less capable as managers but I’m not surprised by the outcome. Having gender-equal senior management is a good sign that your company promotes and hires people based on merit.

A gender-balanced team is also less likely to have obvious blind spots from lack of life experience, and that’s crucial for senior management.

A company that wants to survive a pandemic should take any edge it can get.

Caitlin Fitzsimmons is a senior writer who covers workplace issues and social affairs with an economics edge.

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