How can businesses take the lead on women’s leadership?

Jiselle Steele Gender, Private sector, Women's Economic Empowerment

In our second blog for International Women’s Day, Jiselle Steele and Fernanda Dezotti highlight five ways experts say firms can transform gender balance at the top.

Leadership challenge: audience questions at an Oxfam GB event in 2020 on challenges for women leaders (picture: Bekky Lonsdale/Oxfam)

Where are your women leaders? Many businesses are waking up to the urgent need to tackle the barriers that stop women from realising their full potential in the workplace from discrimination, violence and sexual harassment, to low wages, to a lack of voice and representation

Increasing the representation of women in management and supervisory positions can also help your business to thrive: more diversity at the top seems to help businesses do better, and can help them become more effective in tackling power imbalances throughout supply chains and build a safer and inclusive working environment.  

Oxfam Business Advisory Service (OBAS) has been supporting companies to identify what they need to do to promote gender equality and increase women’s representation. As part of this, we recently did a survey to ask gender professionals how companies can go beyond meeting their minimum obligations around gender and human rights due diligence, focusing on the role of women in the formal sector. (Note that this blog uses “women” to describe anyone who identifies as a woman, and it is essential to acknowledge that women are not a homogenous group. Race, class, ethnicity, religion, age or disability may intersect with gender and expose particular groups of women, such as migrants, or women that are LGBTQIA+ to more discrimination and structural inequalities.)

Here we share five takeaways from the gender experts we surveyed.

1. Make changing gender balance every leader’s job:  it’s not just a task for HR

Commitment to gender equality and shifting power to women across supply chains must come from the top, which means leadership and senior management putting their names and budgets behind this work. It’s also vital that activities to bring about change are done by more than just the human resources or sustainability teams: commercial and operational teams all have an important role to play in changing the practices that lead to women being marginalised or exploited in supply chains.

2. Ensure women feel safe to speak up, stand out and are supported to step up into management posts

A safe working environment, free from violence, that can meet women’s health needs, is essential. Many businesses have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment, but they must also ensure that there are effective “grievance mechanisms” for all workers to raise concerns without fear of retaliation. Working with trade unions, worker associations and women’s rights organisations is also important to make sure women understand their rights and have their voices heard and respected.

Women who are carers also need to be supported in their lives and with their responsibilities outside work so they can take on management roles. That means flexible working policies, paid maternity leave, subsidised health care, and staffed childcare facilities on site. That can all have a big impact to enable women to balance their work and unpaid care and domestic responsibilities.

3. Ensure women get the mentoring and networking opportunities they need to progress

Supporting women’s progression and development in the workplace means paying attention to mentoring and networking. Firms should work closely with women’s professional associations, support the creation of women’s networking forums and set up women’s working groups that can help women to connect with their peers, share their experiences and learn from one another. Such networks can help women tackle challenges that may arise in the workplace and build solidarity.

4. Challenge stereotypes around “women’s work” and “men’s work”, and recruit men as allies

Businesses need to believe in women as leaders.That means challenging stereotypes about what is a man’s or a woman’s job and encouraging them to step into roles that may have been historically occupied by men – from management and supervisor level right through to senior leadership and Board roles. Businesses also need to be aware of and take pre-emptive action to avoid backlash from men as women move into these roles. An important part of this process is training and encouraging men to be allies or change agents to support women in different roles. Firms also need to support women in the face of challenges from those hostile to women managers and to prevent harm.

5. Provide targeted support to prepare women for leadership

A key plank of gender inclusion work will be targeted training for women to develop and strengthen the soft skills they need as managers, such as communication, managing conflicts and negotiation, as well as technical skills such as machine operating or engineering. Such training will boost women’s confidence to put themselves forward for roles as well as their ability to perform them.

Increasing women’s representation in management and leadership roles is a core part of achieving gender equality and addressing structural inequalities that have historically excluded women – and in particular certain groups of women (black, indigenous, LGBTQIA+ women) – from positions of power and decision making. Taking robust and well structured action in the five ways we highlight above to boost women’s representation in leadership across supply chains will be good for fairness, good for women and good for business.


Jiselle Steele

Jiselle Steele is private sector gender advisor at the Oxfam Business Advisory Service (OBAS)


Fernanda Dezotti

Fernanda Dezotti is Senior Finance Business Partner at Oxfam GB

Oxfam Business Advisory Service helps companies to visibly lead as global citizens, deploying positive business practices to make their supply chains stronger and more sustainable, working together to fight the global inequalities that push people into poverty. For more info on how OBAS can help improve your gender balance in leadership, contact Jiselle at

This is the second in a series of blogs for International Women’s Day 2023. Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn to keep up with the latest posts and keep us with Oxfam’s “Feminist Power” campaign here and by looking for the hashtag #FeministPower on social media