Tens of millions of women worldwide have left the workforce since the start of the pandemic, many permanently. This has lowered women’s participation in the global labor force to a crisis level, but the impact goes even deeper. Some studies have indicated that women leaders have more engaged teams and drive better job performance. As a result, the collateral damage could include loss of engagement and productivity from every employee who now won’t be working for a woman.

What the Studies Show

Potential Project conducted a multi-year study of leaders and employees from approximately 5,000 companies in close to 100 countries. They wanted to learn how leaders do the hard things that come with their top jobs while still remaining good human beings. They distilled the analysis into two key traits: wisdom, the courage to do what needs to be done, even when it is difficult; and compassion, the care and empathy shown towards others, combined with the intention to support and help. Both traits are important, but when they are combined, there is an exponentially higher impact on important metrics.

When the data is parsed by gender, the differences are pretty stark. 55% of the women in the study were ranked by their followers as being wise and compassionate compared to only 27% of the men. Conversely, 56% of the men in the study ranked poorly on wisdom and compassion, landing in a quadrant they call Ineffective Indifference. By a 2:1 margin, followers said that women leaders versus male leaders are able to do hard things in a human way.

A 2021 McKinsey report confirms how women are rising to this extraordinary moment as stronger leaders and taking on the extra work that comes with it, compared to men at the same level. In their study of 65,000 employees, women managers were scored higher by their employees as taking the people-centered actions that helped them through the pandemic: providing emotional support (12% more), checking in on overall well-being (7% more), taking action to help manage burnout (5% more).



To leverage these findings towards more beneficial outcomes for all employees, here are four best practices for insightful leaders:

  1. Promote gender equity by forging new, flexible pathways for women to develop and advance.
  2. Develop compassionate leadership and establish internal champions for women.
  3. Reskill managers to coach women.
  4. Create opportunities for intentional peer learning.

There is much need for more wisdom and compassion in the world of work and beyond — and it’s clear that women leaders are a primary source of these invaluable qualities. The immediate challenge for companies is to help employees get through the pandemic—and the work to get this right is far from over. But companies also need to start to plan for the future. The disruption of
the last two years is driving a fundamental change in the way we work. That’s why it is vital that we do all we can to support and develop our current and future women leaders. We all need them.


Forbes (2020, December 3) Natalia Peart: How Women Leaving the Workforce Impacts the Women Left Behind
Harvard Business Review (2022, March 8) Rasmus Hougaard, Jacqueline Carter, and Marissa Afton: When Women Leaders Leave, the Losses Multiply
Gallup (2022, March 4) Anna Truscott-Smith, Camilla Frumar, and Bailey Nelson: The Pandemic Hit Women Hard; Here’s What Leaders Must Do Next
McKinsey & Co. (2021, September 27) Tiffany Burns, Jess Huang, Alexis Krivkovich, Ishanaa Rambachan, Tijana Trkulja, and Lareina Yee: Women in the Workplace 2021