diverse female leader standing in office setting
ATD Blog

She-Cession: It’s a Business Issue

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

The pandemic and financial crisis caused major workplace setbacks for women that must be addressed immediately.

We’ve all been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but men and women have been affected in the workplace in dramatically different ways. While men have been able to focus on work, women have been forced to juggle work, home, and family. The pandemic has set back women by decades compared to their male peers. In fact, women were set back so far that we’re in a she-cession.

How bad has it become? Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, the US Census Bureau reported that 80 percent of employees leaving the workforce were women. In fact, a recent Women at Work survey found that 65 percent of female employees believe the pandemic has made things worse for women at work. This led more than half of those surveyed to feeling burned out at least some of the time, while more than one-third thought about quitting in the last year.

Those are some startling findings, especially because we know companies that have female leaders perform better. DDI’s Diversity & Inclusion Report 2020 found that organizations in the top 10 percent for financial performance had at least 30 percent women leaders.

So, what can we do to offset the negative effects of the she-cession more quickly? It’s going to take an emphasis on gender equity and inclusion from leaders as allies actively using their power and status as supporters, advocates, and disruptors for gender diversity.

This Won’t Just “Work Itself Out”

While gender equity has been a workplace issue for years, the she-cession created major setbacks for women. Experts project it’ll take until at least 2024 for women’s employment rates to reach prepandemic levels.

But we can’t afford to wait for things to work themselves out during the next couple of years. Instead, we need to emphasize supporting women and women in leadership right now. The best place to start is in the leadership pipeline and high-potential pools.


According to the Diversity & Inclusion Report 2020, organizations with more diversity in high-potential pools typically see higher financial performance. In fact, the report found that organizations in the top 10 percent of financial performance report that women make up 24 percent of their high-potential pool.

Organizations with below-average financial performance report less diversity in their high-potential pools. Their pools include only 16 percent of women.

An ally plays an important role to ensure organizations’ high-potential pools are gender diverse. Allies should ask for data and challenge assumptions in the selection system that may be biased or inadvertently stopping women from being targeted for the next rung of leadership.

Companies Risk Losing Women Leaders

Even before the pandemic, companies ran the risk of losing women leaders. Despite many companies having lofty goals for better gender equity, they often don’t invest in women leaders or show them how they can advance their careers at their current organizations.


In fact, about 45 percent of female executives said they would likely need to leave their current company to advance their careers. And they may not be wrong. In DDI’s Executive Outlook 2020, we found that 52 companies looking for a new CEO did not assess a single female candidate. When only one woman was in the mix, she was never chosen for the role.

One important factor holding women back is that they haven’t had equal access to developmental experiences to prepare them for higher levels. DDI’s Leadership Transitions Report 2021 found that women received less transitional support than men. That put women on the “glass cliff,” where they received a promotion but weren’t set up to succeed.

If companies want to reverse this trend, they need to focus on gender equity at every part of the leadership pipeline. That means organizations should audit their development processes to measure gender equity in promotions, development and assessment opportunities, candidate pools, and leaders in executive succession plans.

The goal is to be as transparent as possible when it comes to gender equity and creating a diverse and inclusive team. This transparency should provide metrics that allies can use to take action to democratize the pipeline for women leaders.

The pandemic and traditional barriers have brought gender disparity problems to the forefront. But achieving gender parity shouldn’t be viewed as a problem; it’s an opportunity. It’s about more than advancing a few women. It should help focus on aligning leaders and leadership in all company functions and levels.

There’s also a lot that women and their allies can do to create gender equity in the workplace. Learn more about these moves and how allies can help in Amplify: How Women Leaders Ignite Their Impact, an interactive super session that will be held during the ATD 2021 International Conference & Exposition on August 31 at 1 p.m.

About the Author

Tacy M. Byham, PhD, is CEO of Development Dimensions International (DDI). She is co-author of the book Your First Leadership Job: How Catalyst Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others.

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I'm sure this is the majority, but I've been blessed by my husband's ability to work from home so that I am free to be in the office as needed.
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Thank Tacy. Great insight. I am looking forward to the your session at ATD21.
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