UN Women has made “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world” the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day. While there have been many discussions around women in leadership, the question is: Have we made enough progress?

Despite strides in women's representation in powerful roles, the number of women in leadership is still disproportionately low. Women may represent 40 percent of the global working population, but only a few are in senior roles. It’s no different in India. Women account for only 14 percent of leadership positions in Indian companies, according to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report 2020.

The COVID-19 crisis has made matters worse. According to Lean In’s Women in the Workplace 2020 report, senior-level women are 1.5 times more likely than their male counterparts to think about downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce because of COVID-19. This could only widen the existing gender gap at the leadership level.

The risk is real. The COVID-19 situation could wash away years of efforts toward closing that gap if timely action is not taken. So, what can companies do differently to retain and encourage women in leadership roles?

Here are a few things they could focus on:

Remove unconscious bias

It’s an undeniable fact that all of us have our automatic patterns of thinking. Companies can help individuals move past their unconscious biases about women in leadership roles. Structured training across levels can help to bring awareness and avoid discriminatory behavior against women.

Set bold targets for gender balance

Merely having one or two women representatives as a formality and checking the diversity box won’t do anymore. Organizations must set bold goals to increase the number of women in leadership. They will have to consciously work toward achieving balance at every level so that women are empowered to reach the top.

Ensure equal opportunities for all

Creating equal work opportunities for both genders is crucial. Organizations need to be vigilant and keep a tab on unfair practices. Every manager or supervisor needs to play a responsible role and take care of the developmental needs of their female team members. Managers should motivate and encourage female employees to take on new and challenging roles to help them reach their full potential.

Provide flexible working options

Women wear multiple hats and juggle demanding work and household responsibilities. Providing some flexibility in working hours or work timings can help them maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Mentor and coach women at all levels

The saying goes, “Leaders are not born, they are made.” But did you know that women are 24% less likely to be offered advice from a senior leader than men? Organizations and individuals can help women grow into leaders by ensuring that they are provided with the right support and guidance in a fair manner.

Let’s hope the “new normal” includes new ways of approaching the idea of women in leadership. As Sheryl Sandberg puts it, “If more women are in leadership roles, we’ll stop assuming they shouldn’t be!”

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