Women in Leadership

Last year marked a historic representation of women leading Fortune 500 companies. More women CEOs than ever made the list, a total of 24, up from 20 in 2013. Fortune magazine has been keeping track since 1998. Just one woman was on the list that first year.[1]

Other “firsts” for women in 2014 include:

  • Mary Barra became first woman to lead a major automotive company.
  • Michele A. Roberts was elected as Executive Director of the National Basketball Players Association.
  • Becky Hammon became first full-time female coach in the NBA (and in any of the four professional sports in America).
  • Megan Smith was named as first female Chief Technology Officer of the United States.

Though there is still a lot of work needed, this hopeful trajectory got us to wondering if some of our cultural assumptions about women in leadership – and in the workforce in general – are starting to break down. Here are some “myths” about women in the workforce where the facts don’t support:

Women opt-out of the workforce to care for children – False

A study of high-potential women by Hunter College professor, Pamela Stone, reveals that frustration and long hours were more likely to be the cause of women’s decision to opt-out of the corporate fast track, not to care for their children. In Stone’s study, 60% of women worked long after the birth of their second child, yet 90% left because of workplace problems. Most women, about two thirds, tried part-time work instead of opting-out entirely. However, many found that part-time really meant the same hours for part-time pay and marginalization that effectively prevented advancement.

A case study of a mid-sized global consulting firm presented at the “Gender and Work: Challenging Conventional Wisdom” Research Symposium at Harvard Business School goes even further to say that “The issue is ‘overwork,’ not ‘work-family conflict’”.[2] The authors state that men and women suffer equally from the problem of overwork, but that women also face cultural pressure to manage parenting tasks that men don’t.

Stone’s research suggests that women would prefer to continue to advance their careers during their child rearing years, but that inflexible – and sometimes hostile – work environments force them into an either/or decision.[3]

Women are less effective in traditionally male industries – False

Bob Sherwin, COO of leadership consultancy Zenger Folkman writes for Business Insider that “in the traditional male bastions of sales, legal, engineering, IT and the R&D function, women actually received higher effectiveness ratings than males.”[4]

The claim for this statement comes from a feedback sample of around 16,000 leaders where each participant had an average of 13 managers, direct reports and peers respond. The same data indicates that, on aggregate, women outperform men in overall effectiveness by a small, but statistically significant, amount.

Women are only seen as better leaders because they are more nurturing – False

The Zenger Folkman data dispels a very common assumption that women leaders are only better at what Bob Sherwin calls “nurturing competencies”. These are leadership competencies such as collaboration, teamwork, inspiring others, relationship building and so on.

While women do outscore their male counterparts in these categories, they outscore men even more in the areas of taking initiative, displaying integrity and honesty and driving for results. These are not nurturing competencies. Women leaders were seen as more effective in getting things done and delivering results.

Hopefully, the pioneer women of 2014 will help all businesses dispel the myths surrounding women in leadership and reassure employers and employees alike that entrusting leadership to women is not only the right thing to do, it’s also  good business.