Attracting and retaining future leaders — especially younger women — requires focusing first on what’s most important to them now, while keeping an eye on developing trends.

Authors: Sally Earnshaw Nathalie Francisci Leslie Lemenager


Reliance on leaders as communicators sustained a cultural presence for many organizations during the pandemic. The investments leaders made back then, as they sought to bring a distanced workforce closer together, continue to make connecting with employees easier today. One of the most important outcomes is the realization that communicating with diverse voices in the right emotional tone synergizes employee talents and efforts.

Strategically designed communications link employee action to organizational intent. Those communications can also be a platform for connecting leaders. Yet despite successful efforts to bring a distanced workforce closer together, barriers still exist that challenge women in leadership to communicate effectively.

Statistics make these struggles more apparent. Voluntary attrition is higher among women leaders than men.1 In director positions, for every woman who is promoted to the next level, two women choose to leave the company.2 Diversity aspirations need to be actualized through more equitable practices and better support for women overall. The potential costs of not prioritizing both behavioral and systemic change go beyond attraction and retention to include brand reputation.

Communication is one of the most powerful tools for elevating diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). It's a flexible discipline that serves a lot of different needs, including storytelling. Messaging can embed narratives into organizations that create a better employee experience, a stronger workplace culture and sustainable organizational wellbeing.

Cultivating inclusion, diversity and trust through communication and behavior

Inclusion is clearly a factor in attrition among any workforce group. As a case in point, women who feel excluded at work are three times more likely to quit than those who feel included.1 When the behaviors and communication styles of leaders show that diversity, empathy and resilience are top priorities for the organization, leaders invite transformation and advance their attraction and retention goals.

According to research, open and honest communications are behavioral enablers that increase inclusion for women more than for men. And the benefit of this transparency can be abundant. Women who feel fully included are 11 times more likely to become promoters of their companies than those who do not.1

Amplifying diverse voices and perspectives is an aspiration for most organizations. But many employees, including tomorrow's leaders, are accustomed to representation on social media where they're part of a wider conversation. Functionally, it's important for Human Resources and senior leaders to proactively insist on diverse representation. Asking essential questions and embedding accountability into their efforts support a smooth evolution toward change. World-class communicators are more able to share a long-term vision for change and to act as a role model.3

Communication is the primary platform for engaging and mobilizing people around an organizational cause, including employees, senior leaders and members of any local communities that may benefit. Employees need to understand the purpose of their involvement and why it's important. Identifying with common feelings helps to drive expected actions, and a basic principle such as "know, feel, do" can guide the creation of effective messages.

Surprise decisions that impact work are three times more likely to leave people unhappy with their job. Conversely, candor from employers builds trust when it improves understanding and reduces anxiety.2 Under a transparent decision-making process, engagement is promoted, along with trust and contentment.

As women extend their influence, tech platforms may be especially helpful in promoting their achievements and increasing their risk tolerance.

The equalizing effect of digital technology

Leaders rely on a slew of digital technologies to effectively communicate with employees in remote, hybrid or onsite work environments. Updated infrastructure and strategies allow leaders to take advantage of an increasing range of options that fine-tune the ability to connect with work teams. These resources also prepare leaders to better overcome future disruptions.

Technology enhances the ability to solicit input, too. Leaders can more readily expand their support networks and opportunities for mentorship or internal sponsorship. Internally and externally, these networks can be pivotal for shaping and refining communication ideas and leadership profiles. As women extend their influence, tech platforms may be especially helpful in promoting their achievements and increasing their risk tolerance.

An internal mentor supports individual growth through objective perspectives gained in a different part of the organization. Through a relationship with a sponsor in the same line of work, leaders have the backing of a colleague who promotes them and their work efforts. Establishing a personal review board for access to a more diverse set of perspectives can broaden feedback even more.

Countering bias in communications

People are vulnerable to preconceived notions, and that tendency can bring about conscious and unconscious bias. Some of these biases may be rooted in preconceived gender stereotypes for women, making effective communication more complicated for those in leadership roles. In diverse workforces within multinational or multicultural organizations, employees are more likely to be acculturated to different colloquial words, subcultures and communication styles.

Several studies confirm that authority gaps still exist between women and men. Women are generally seen as communicating with more empathy, but they're not taken as seriously because their audience tends to think they're not assertive enough. Gender bias can make assertiveness a low-win if not a no-win proposition for women.

Even in industries where women are more prevalent than men, constrained communication can be a challenge. Women have felt the need to be mindful when expressing authority and to downplay accomplishments. Their contributions may not be acknowledged, and men may interrupt them when they speak.4 Though underlying and sometimes unrecognized biases are often at issue, these perceptions often diminish the power of female leaders to communicate and influence the outcomes expected in their roles. Women's perceived competency drops by 35% and their perceived worth falls by $15,088 when they're judged as being "forceful" or "assertive." Comparatively, male competency drops by 22% and their worth falls by just $6,547.5

Studies have suggested that briefly framing the intent of a statement, before sharing content, can reduce social and emotional backlash. This framing includes prefacing statements with behavior, value or inoculation frames such as, "I'm going to express my opinion very directly. I'll be as specific as possible."5 However, this type of framing puts the burden on women to change how they communicate to neutralize bias.

Women’s perceived worth drops $15,088 when they’re considered forceful or assertive, while men’s drops $6,547.

Structurally, changes at organizations occur when cooperation and collaboration are incentivized over competitive leadership that prioritizes progress at the expense of others.4 For example, there was wide consensus that female political leaders were more decisive and effective in handling the pandemic. They were more likely to share factual information through social media influencers and kids-only press conferences that spoke to the specific concerns of the country's youth.6

Instead of communicating "more like men," these women engaged their audience through the spirit of collaboration, transparency and empathy.6 This practice can be incentivized through more cooperative reward structures that recognize all types of contributions toward organizational goals. Performance measures that encourage teamwork as well as individual accomplishments are key.4

More flexibility through hybrid and remote work options

Attracting and retaining future leaders, especially younger women, requires focusing first on what's most important to them now, while keeping an eye on developing trends. Generations that more recently entered the workforce tend to be more adamant about investing their careers in organizations that commit to providing flexibility and to treating wellbeing and DEI as high priorities. Female leaders are significantly more likely than men at this level to leave their jobs if these expectations aren't met.2

Very few women — only 1 in 10 — prefer to work mostly onsite, and many point to remote or hybrid arrangements as a top reason for joining or staying with an organization. Flexibility is a key reason for this disproportionate split, but other reasons are also influential. When women work remotely at least some of the time, they experience fewer microaggressions and more psychological safety.2

If leadership messages consistently focus on the importance of meeting organizational goals and clearly measuring progress toward success, the where-and-when significance of work diminishes. Bias toward those who are present in the office or spend more time on a task can be more easily avoided, in favor of rewarding those who deliver on performance expectations.

Leaders can and should be influential change agents, motivating their team's commitment and engagement to maximize their productivity and performance. A variety of communication strategies and methods can be effective, but messages and other interactions that stay grounded in empathy and compassion are much likelier to deliver on goals. Diversifying the voices that are heard within the organization  — when they speak authentically to a shared purpose and a common reality  — have true potential to improve inclusion, expand leadership and slow attrition.

Author Information


1Bax, Bianca, Nishma Gosrani and Nandita Jariwala. "To Help Women Stay and Thrive at Work, Focus on the "Texture" of Inclusion," Bain & Company, 21 Mar 2022.

2Krivkovich, Alexis, Wei Wei Liu, Hilary Nguyen, Ishanaa Rambachan, Nicole Robinson, Monne Williams and Lareina Yee. "Women in the Workplace 2022," McKinsey & Company, 18 Oct 2022.

3"State of the Sector 2021/22," Gallagher, Feb 2022. PDF file.

4Diehl, Amy, Amber L. Stephenson and Leanne M. Dzubinski. "Research: How Bias Against Women Persists in Female-Dominated Workplaces," Harvard Business Review, 2 Mar 2022.

5Caprino, Kathy. "Gender Bias Is Real: Women's Perceived Competency Drops Significantly When Judged as Being Forceful," Forbes, 25 Aug 2015.

6Wittenberg-Cox, Avivah. "What Do Countries With The Best Coronavirus Responses Have In Common? Women Leaders," Forbes,13 Apr 2020.


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