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Breaking barriers

Women's path to leadership in a VUCA environment


Uncertainty and volatility are not just incidental features of the business landscape—they are woven into its very fabric. Effective leadership in this context hinges on a crucial premise: the ability to navigate risks and uncertainties while embracing resilience and innovation for success.

In the face of the challenges presented by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA), women in leadership roles have a unique opportunity not only to adapt but also to redefine the narrative. This article explores how a reframed VUCA approach, anchored in vision, understanding, clarity, and agility, empowers women leaders to not only weather the storms but also thrive and lead with distinction. 

We also shed light on the challenges beyond business leadership attributes, and how today’s barriers can be combated with accelerated strides towards growth and gender parity.

Redefining the VUCA approach

In the context of navigating the VUCA landscape, a pivotal theme emerged during BDO Canada's recent Accelerate Her: Women Leader Summit, shedding light on how women in leadership positions can effectively thrive through such business challenges. 

Sonia Edmonds, BDO Canada's Managing Partner for Innovation & Change, shared insights on redefining the narrative by advocating for a fresh perspective on these challenges—vision, understanding, clarity, and agility. 

"Embracing the significance of accelerating women into leadership is not just a commitment to diversity; it's our pathway to innovation. To thrive in the VUCA environment, we must cultivate a deep understanding of our surroundings. Together, with a positive mindset, diverse leadership, and informed awareness, we are poised to grow and make an impact."

This reframed approach not only equips women leaders to excel in dynamic business environments but also unlocks many advantages across diverse dimensions of leadership.

Here are the four opportunities presented in the face of VUCA:

In the face of volatility, a clear vision becomes the cornerstone for success. When women leaders leverage their innate empathy and attunement, they can craft compelling visions that resonate with teams and stakeholders. Through a well-defined direction and purpose, they can lead with clarity, steering their teams with resilience through challenging times.

Against the backdrop of uncertainty, women leaders wield the power of understanding. This is enabled through continuous learning and deep comprehension, allowing women leaders to navigate the changing dynamics of industries, markets, and teams. By embracing a mindset of perpetual learning, women leaders can anticipate changes and make informed decisions in the face of unpredictable landscapes.

In the complex world of leadership, clarity emerges as an asset women leaders can employ to simplify intricate challenges. This can be achieved when setting clear expectations, breaking down complex goals, and communicating effectively. By ensuring clarity, women leaders can guide their teams through multifaceted challenges, ensuring a cohesive and focused approach.

Confronted with ambiguity, women leaders can respond with agility. This signifies the importance of an agile mindset—being flexible in approach, willing to pivot when necessary, and always ready to learn and adapt. In an ambiguous environment, women leaders can thrive by turning uncertainty into an opportunity for growth and innovation.

Present state: Persistent barriers

On a professional scale, and despite notable strides, women continue to face underrepresentation in leadership roles. 

Local and global data from Statistics Canada and the World Economic Forum reveal a stark reality—women hold only 30.9% of senior management roles in Canada1 and the global gender pay parity will take over 131 years to achieve2. The persistence of such challenges underscores the imperative for sustained initiatives to bridge these disparities. Recognizing the current landscape and acknowledging these challenges is essential for fostering meaningful progress.

To this day, women still face significant barriers in reaching leadership positions with gender bias and unconscious bias having a significant impact. Some of the ongoing barriers include:

  • The double bind phenomenon where women are caught in societal expectations of assertiveness and conformity, which further complicates their journey.
  • The leaky pipe phenomenon which describes how at each level of career progression, we lose more and more women, often caused by challenges women continually face in their careers, especially in balancing work and personal life. Women still hold the primary role of caregiver whether it’s for their young family or aging family members. 
  • The lack of mentorship and sponsorship opportunities adds to the issue, creating a deficit in essential guidance for career advancement. 
  • This is further compounded by the lack of diversity in leadership, which hinders the recognition and value of women's contributions, preventing their progression to leadership roles.

It's crucial to address these barriers comprehensively to promote gender equality and empower women to grow and pursue equitable career development.

women smiling during a presentation

Charting a path forward

The importance of women in leadership roles cannot be overstated, as their inclusion brings a diverse perspective and a wealth of skills to the table. 

One way to address this is by fostering a balanced leadership culture, starting from the top. Organizations should actively promote diversity and gender equality in leadership positions, which sends a powerful message throughout the organization and helps dismantle barriers. 

Mentorship programs are also vital in supporting aspiring female leaders by offering guidance and networking opportunities. Additionally, providing flexibility in work arrangements acknowledges and accommodates the unique challenges women may face in balancing professional and personal responsibilities. 

Comprehensive training on bias and unconscious bias is essential. By promoting awareness and challenging preconceived notions, these trainings help break down barriers and create a more inclusive environment. Engaging male allies in this effort is crucial, as their advocacy and support can amplify the collective impact. 

To see substantial change, Sonia reminds us that “at times, in order to see the change, you need to be the change”. By actively embracing and promoting inclusive leadership practices, organizations can accelerate the journey of women in leadership and create a more diverse and unbiased workplace.

women talking in a business meeting

Equipping women leaders

Despite the ongoing challenges, women leaders are paving the way for a more inclusive and dynamic future, proving that navigating a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous landscape is not just about survival but thriving with resilience and excellence. 

At BDO, we take pride in actively contributing to this transformative narrative by fostering the empowerment of women in leadership roles. Our Women Driving Growth team, comprising experienced and talented female leaders, stands as a testament to our commitment. With an aim to support, empower, and elevate women professionals, our team is committed to providing resources, support systems, and a vibrant community to thrive and succeed.

To learn more about our women-focused advisory services from an all-women team of professionals, visit our Women Driving Growth page and connect with our leaders.

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