Empathy drives change for women

On International Women’s Day, Mimi Nicklin, author of Softening The Edge and CEO and founder of global creative agency Freedm, explains why empathy can help drive change 

While the gender equality debate heats up every March, it is no surprise that resistance and lack of buy-in are still obstacles to successful female inclusion and equality implementation across the rest of the year. While I often work with companies whose senior staff support gender balance, the leadership team continues to sit in rooms full of males only.

They post the photos, create the panel discussions and share progress updates seemingly without noticing. While the IWD theme is global – and so it needs to be – it does raise the question as to whether its creators are able to assess it beyond the boundaries of developed markets where breaking glass ceilings is more of a focus than elevation of female rights.

Do we talk enough about the required shifts within Asia and Africa in terms of what this impactful conversation looks like across 76 per cent of the world’s population? Most of the world sits within these regions and yet ‘equity’ is a goal that can only be achieved a long while after the elevated rights of women are presented, included and equalised. Many of these are still distant from reality and ‘equity’ seems a far cry for most businesses and even societies.

The roots of gender injustice run deep.

As corporate reforms have become increasingly focused on understanding what ‘equity’ represents, we don’t yet have the basics in place upon which these discussions can be built. We do not have enough conversation, research or understanding surrounding what ‘equity’ (or even equality) truly means to the women we are offering it to.


With large gaps in empathy across the corporate world, have enough CEOs stopped to ask women what this inclusive and fair reality might look like to them in their markets, social constructs and families? I would be so bold to recommend that, as organisations battle to understand how ‘equity’ is a feasible discussion for them, they might start with empathy.

Organisational empathy helps establish norms that promote inclusion and create curious environments, ensuring that  changes are made with connection and understanding. Empathy ensures women’s voices are shared for understanding and insight, versus generalising female employee need-states or perpetuating more prejudice by ‘empowerment’.

‘Women don’t want another webinar on their future potential, they want systemic change, programmes, platforms and potential. They want to be seen. They want to be heard’

Mimi Nicklin

One of the most defining human features is our capacity for empathy. It motivates prosocial acts and inclusive behaviour. With research suggesting empathetic listening can be used to shift mindsets, change legacy practices and institutionalise policies to reinforce workplace gender equity, IWD 2023 can begin embracing this Listening Led Leadership.

The shift means an overt commitment to seeking to first understand and to creating more spaces for opposing views that elicit gender openness, strengthen gender fairness and establish trust. As our world continues to leave many senior leaders overwhelmed with constant change and an inconsistent working environment, CEOs can be setting themselves the task of actively understanding their fellow female teams to understand what the journey ahead needs to include to provoke change on a micro level.


As a bite size starting point, these ‘micro’ empathic insights within these regions will lead to the macro shift that a more female balanced world of work needs. To become more effective allies in a gender inclusive world requires valuing someone else’s reality and perspective as if it were your own, even if you have not experienced it yourself

Leaders must do more listening than speaking in the year ahead, de-centralise themselves to create room for voices that are often underrepresented (or worse, silenced), and most importantly, recognise that truly balanced allyship is a process that requires the time to embrace curiosity over action. Whether you find the path to equity, or simply open the door to empathy, today signifies another step towards balancing our world.

To read John Fanning’s review of Mimi Nicklin’s Softening the Edge, click on https://marketing.ie/articles/why-empathy-offers-big-dividends/





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