Women as leaders


Over the last decade, the number of women-owned businesses grew at nearly twice the rate of all U.S. firms. Despite this good news, the statistics about women as business leaders are disheartening. Only 2.6% of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. Only 16% of the House and Senate members are women. (Even worse, seven of the 17 women in the Senate were appointed to succeed their deceased husbands.) And while 3 of the 9 managers reporting to me are women, that ratio is still smaller than the overall employee population.

Why the scarcity of women leaders?

It’s certainly not due to ability. A decade ago, Business Week reported that “female managers outshine their male counterparts in almost every measure,” from producing high-quality work to goal-setting to mentoring employees. Similarly Catalyst research group found that Fortune 500 with the most women in senior management had a third higher return on equities. And Northwestern University examined 45 studies on leaders in business, academics and other areas and determined that women in management positions are better leaders than men in equivalent positions.

While it’s tempting to blame the glass ceiling, I believe that part of the answer can be found in this decade-old Business Week article:

Women’s biggest strengths can also become their biggest weaknesses, says Vivian Eyre, a New York management consultant. By working so hard to get great results, they often take away time from building critical business alliances. “Given the opportunity to stay in their offices and make sure their report is perfect or going out of their office and talking to Joe about his business, women are more likely to do their own work,” says Eyre.

What’s more, she adds, women still suffer from a lack of mentoring and being kept outside informal networks of communication. Many women admit that because they spend so much time focusing on getting results, they don’t think enough about strategy and vision–qualities that Harvard’s Kanter says are still the most important in a top executive.

Spend more time networking and manage by walking around are good advice to both men and women.

A recent Time Magazine article titled ‘Women Will Rule Business’ contains this optimistic prediction:

In fact, a decade from now, companies will understand that hiring lots of women, and letting them work the way they want, will help them Make More Money.

Letting the best qualified person focus on improving corporate performance sounds like a good recipe for success.

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7 Responses to Women as leaders

  1. Kelly June 29, 2009 at 11:35 am #

    Its always interesting when people write about women in senior leadership especially when providing reasons of why there just don’t seem to be enough women in higher levels of business and government. Thankfully, you didn’t really try to solve this ‘perceived problem’ but offered a perspective that ties back to your blog theme. As a woman and one whom – I think – works like those mentioned in the BW article I’ll provide some insight.

    1) Why does it matter if the Congressional reps do not equal (percentage) that of the make up of their constituents? I do not feel any less represented by a man. It does not matter to me that my boss, his boss are males and that there are not as many women on the leadership team as there are women in my department.

    2) Because its taboo and not something to discuss in ‘polite company’ we often overlook working moms and how they affect the ‘working women’ percentages. Many working moms try to achieve a balance of work/life which often leaves higher leadership positions at work in jeopardy… due to balancing. (I do not speak for all women, of course!!) Working moms can be very successful at my company. but success/leadership does not need to be limited to the stats cited here.

    3) What about silent leadership? Maybe women are a higher percentage of that group more than we would think? (I’m referring to Badaracco’s book, Leading Quietly)

    Per your usual blog topic are we looking at the right statistics to measure women in senior positions? What do these statistics mean to success of a company/government? Should they?

    Maybe the general discussion can be reframed? Do you think that companies/governtment would be better run if more women were in senior level/leadership positions? Then I suppose these might be compelling statistics.

    I like to think that we women are really running things from the behind the scenes. 😉 I, personally, like it that way. I can be a mom and work and be successful at both but by my own definitions.

    Just a perspective…

    And since I just read my company’s guidelines on social media policy… the views expressed here are my own and do not reflect an official communication from my employer. (Which i didn’t state anyway, but which some might guess)

  2. Tara June 29, 2009 at 11:57 am #

    I’m guessing that “Kelly” isn’t really a woman because clearly the issue IS the glass ceiling. Men don’t think women are fit for the job, even though as the Time article said, we would probably do a better job than the people in charge.

  3. Kelly June 29, 2009 at 1:56 pm #

    Its true that years ago ‘Kelly’ was the male version of the name. However, many women have that spelling now. But perhaps that is why you didn’t think my comment was from a woman?

    I am a woman and a mom.

    Its unfortunate that you think the glass ceiling IS the only problem. This will lead to frustration for you because you can’t see the possibility that other reasons exist some of which I outlined in my original post. And never mind that we might be looking at the wrong measurements for defining successful women leaders.

    At my company I don’t know of a single man that thinks women are NOT fit for the job and I work with senior executives. I’m sure some exist but its definitely not a pervasive thought pattern.

    I hope you speak to more women before you speak for us all when you state we are held back by a mythical ceiling.

  4. Tara June 29, 2009 at 4:16 pm #

    I don’t know what company you work for and i guess it’s possible that the men there think that women are suitable for the job but are they in executive leadership? They aren’t in my company. And I just check the web site of the company that the poster works at, and there are no woment there either. In fact, every face on the web site looks the same.
    The original post said that less than 3% of the F100 companies were led by women. If there isn’t a glass ceiling, why is this so?

  5. Kevin Cox June 29, 2009 at 9:47 pm #

    I was raised in an industry that under went a tremendous behavioral change in regards to gender in the workplace–advertising agencies. I don’t know if you have ever watched the HBO TV series “Madmen”. It is about an advertising agency in the 1960s. Women made big gains in employment during World War II when a portion of the male working population was sent over seas to fight the war–see story of Rosie the Riveter ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosie_the_Riveter ). This gain was largely eroded over time after the end of the war. The 60s were the height of this reversal. Since the 60s agencies by necessity had to re-invent themselves as gender diverse organizations. Mass-consumerization brought purchasing power to women with all kinds of products from consumer products to services. In cases where the primary audience was women, how could a male creative director really understand the deeply personal and sensitive customer perceptions of female consumers? In order to sell these goods and services successfully to female audience’s agencies had to change–just to survive in some cases.

    The reason I am replying is that I am a passionate believer in the imperative that society and businesses that operate in society should reflect the natural composition of their audience. By definition society is equally comprised of men and women. For an organization to be truly integrated into society it needs to embrace the natural diversity of people. Diversity brings an organization better insight into what is going on within society, it help organizations to better identify the trends and relevant opportunities that society presents. I have been lucky to have worked for some for some famous women in the industry–Mary Lou Quinlan ( http://www.justaskawoman.com/aboutus_bio.php?bio=marylou&level3=1 ), Jane Mercer (a partner at Ogilvy & Mather London), and even Susan Popper and Costanza Tedesco here at SAP. I have seen the success of gender diversity throughout my entire career.

    There’s a very interesting article from Harvard Business Review Sept 2007, “Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership” ( http://hbr.harvardbusiness.org/2007/09/women-and-the-labyrinth-of-leadership/ar/1 ). It is one of the best articles on the subject that I have ever read. It’s full of great facts and points out the less obvious truth that there are a host of obstacles, and it is the sum of these obstacles that stacks the deck unfairly. Take for instance the results of a study conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that found marriage and parenthood were associated with higher wages for men but not for women–companies need to reassess the complete raft of employee benefits and incentives to truly begin to address this issue. Its not just wages, its all the little things that companies do without thinking and with the best of intentions. The article also discusses the idea of widely shared conscious and unconscious mental associations about men, women, and leaders. The article proposes that we as a society have “type cast women”. If women try to adopt some of the leadrship traits associated with men they are criticized as not being feminine enough. And if they are too feminine they are criticized for not having leadership qualities. A double bind.

    We as a society need move past just understanding the differences between female and male qualities to respecting and valuing those differences in order to build a better society for everyone who lives in it.

  6. Barbara July 13, 2009 at 10:15 am #

    It is not only tempting to blame the glass ceiling, it is correct to blame mostly the glass ceiling. Are there things that women could do to improve their chances? Sure, but these things are small, and also not necessarily effective for women (the old “she’s too aggressive/she’s too feminine” bind). But the biggest obstacle is plain old gender bias. And no amount of networking will let you into a network where they don’t want you there.

    Which is why studies have also shown that successful women go on to *other* companies and are successful there, too. While men who are successful at one company are not necessarily successful at another, because they didn’t necessarily have the underlying skills for success in the first place. Their gender and so-called networking skills got them further than they should have gone.

  7. Lui Sieh August 6, 2009 at 6:01 am #

    And we have recently this interesting debate: Do Women Make Better Bosses? from the New York Times.

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