Women in Leadership: Today’s Hot Topics

May 2021 | By Danielle Hochstein, Ph.D.

Recently I moderated the virtual Women in Leadership panel at the American Biomanufacturing Summit. This was my second time moderating this panel virtually, and I continue to be amazed by the richness of the conversation—despite being unable to meet face-to-face. The panel included senior female leaders of Acceleron, Genentech, Novartis, Roche, and Sobi, each having rich experiences to share.

BIO 2021 _ WIL_ 2_Cropped2

The panel’s goal was to discuss different perspectives (although complementary) on what it takes to build and grow leaders, how Covid-19 has impacted the role of leadership, and how to promote Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in any organization—with an emphasis on women.
Some of the themes from last year’s panel reappeared as critical this year, with these standing out in particular:

  • Build lasting relationships: Working in a remote or hybrid world requires trust. Trust comes from strong relationships, which take time to build. Without good relationships, there can be no influence and impact. So, take the time to build personal relationships, and don’t let the physical distance negatively impact your connections with people.
  • Demonstrate agility: Being an effective leader today means accepting that organizational changes are ongoing, and that you will have to adapt to what’s coming quickly, so you can lead others by example. Find ways to address the needs of the moment without getting lost in them. Be flexible. This includes flexibility on what it means to have a “regular workday.” Different people require different schedules, and now is the time to investigate how best to adjust work schedules to meet the varying life demands on your people. Give them space to perform this balancing act that comes with working virtually and remotely.

In addition to these recurring themes, there were others that were brought up in this group. I’d like to share a few:

  • Recognize Covid-19’s impact on women: women have been burning out, with many working triple-duty (job, family, and home-schooling children) and have disproportionately left the workforce as a result. Some women might feel like they are failing at everything, being continually tugged in multiple directions by managing professional, personal and social demands. As leaders it is important that we have a way to notice when female colleagues are struggling and find ways to support them practically and flexibly.
  • Make DE&I visible in employee communications and experiences: DE&I is not about numbers and processes—it’s your organization’s culture. If you create a culture of respect and trust, of fair practices in hiring and promotion—it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s motivating to everyone. Reinforce the DE&I behaviors you want to see in your culture, and be open to discussing challenging areas. Realize that at times you may unintentionally contribute to the very challenges that people report. Be open and seek ways to create the best DE&I-focused culture for everyone. Beyond the talk, create genuine experiences by including teammates from underrepresented groups in those open and honest conversations.
  • Place a greater focus on health & wellness: Given the unique work situation for many employees, it is important to consider whether your organization’s health and wellness benefits, programs and activities are providing the right level of support. What additional new benefits should you introduce? Try to get a regular pulse from the organization and act quickly.
  • Embrace the learning journey: Being a leader in today’s world requires the desire to constantly grow and learn. You should never get to a point where you stop learning and listening. As the world around us changes, so do leadership practices that have the most impact. What worked in the past may not work now. For example, leading virtually has placed a premium on pragmatism, being hands-on and solution-focused, not idealism.
  • The importance of bringing your whole self: leadership’s role is to create an environment that enables people to reach their full potential, or, as one panelist said, “bring your whole self to work.” This is a great concept and it applies to both leaders and employees. What do you need to bring your whole self to work? What do you need from others? Do you even know? It takes time to figure out. Getting to the root of needs and barriers can help all of us be more present and engaged.
  • Overcome your inner critic: Many women leaders report doubting themselves repeatedly over the course of their careers. Often, this leads to women not moving forward with opportunities, even great ones. If you are one of those who doubts your ability to do something, or do it well, acknowledge that feeling, but move forward. This “inner critic” is not a sign of true limitations, but a sign of limitations we set for ourselves—justified or not. Thus, we have to move ourselves forward.
  • Stretch yourself and others: If you want to grow, and help others grow, give stretch assignments—both to yourself and them—that pull out of your comfort zone. Support others through the process, so they can really learn. Seek opportunities to experience your own capabilities, and the risks to safely take with support.
  • Be authentic: One impact of the pandemic has been to humanize leadership, to display who we really are outside of work. Zoom or Teams video calls have revealed much more of our personal lives: our personal workspaces (bedroom, basement, deck, kitchen table), with our children and pets making cameo appearances, the noise of remodeling in the background, things visible to the camera that we might not realize, etc. The pandemic has been a great equalizer in demonstrating that we all struggle with similar work/life balance challenges. All of a sudden our whole selves are very visible, and this authenticity has been a good thing—and as leaders, we should embrace this change.
So these were the topics shared by the women in leadership panel. They do apply to us all. I hope that sharing these thoughts will help you on your continuing leadership journey, and help those you lead.


Topics: Leadership, Women in the workplace