How female leadership can uplift companies — and why it’s so undervalued
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Companies led by women, or with a substantial number of women on their boards, financially outperform companies with less gender diversity at the top. Firms with female directors achieve a higher level of innovation. And when it comes to many of the key traits that make leaders effective — such as humility, empathy, self-awareness and self-control — women tend to outperform men.
Yet they continue to face a “broken rung” in the promotion ladder: For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are promoted. Women lead only 8% of Fortune 500 companies. Looking outside established businesses and into the realm of startups, women received just 2% of venture capital dollars in 2021.
Julia Boorstin, a senior correspondent at CNBC, has covered business and technology for more than 20 years. In that time, she said, she has been consistently struck by how differently the female leaders she interviews lead their companies. In her new book, “When Women Lead: What They Achieve, Why They Succeed, and How We Can Learn from Them,” she unpacks decades of data and more than 100 personal interviews to illustrate what it is that women uniquely bring to leadership positions and why it matters.
Boorstin joined “Marketplace’s” Kai Ryssdal to talk about the new book and what everyone — regardless of their gender — can gain by learning from and emulating female leadership. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: The statistics are out there about women getting fractions — like single-digit percentages — of venture capital money and of companies making more money when women are on the board or when women run those companies. When you started reporting this book, how did you decide to get beyond that? Because the essence of this book is way more nuanced than just the numbers.
Julia Boorstin: Oh, it’s not just about the numbers. As a business reporter for the past 23 years, I’ve been able to interview literally thousands of people. And I’ve always been struck by the women. Yes, the women are a tiny minority. Women currently represent about 8% of CEOs of the Fortune 500. And, as you mentioned, women last year secured 2% of all venture capital dollars. So women were exceptions to the rule. But I also noticed that they were leading and approaching problem solving in different ways.
Ryssdal: Play that out a little bit. How do these women approach problem solving that is different than male executives?
Boorstin: So what I have found is that women are more likely to lead with empathy, they’re more likely to lead with vulnerability and they’re also more likely to practice gratitude. And there was some really fascinating data I found about how gratitude actually enables you to do more longer-term planning and longer-term thinking. And of course, that’s incredibly valuable if you’re leading a company. And then, instead of top-down leadership with the boss telling you what to do, they’re more likely to bring in diverse perspectives from across their teams.
Ryssdal: Can we talk about Wall Street for a second? You say at one point in this book that women don’t seem good at being CEOs because they don’t often serve as CEOs. Therefore, investors and board members don’t back them. That sort of becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Boorstin: One hundred percent! There’s so much data about pattern matching. And there’s this fascinating study I referenced in the book of jockeys. And male and female jockeys actually compete against each other. And when the betting public — men and women — saw that women were particularly underrepresented in certain races, they assumed they wouldn’t be good at that category. And so there is this natural human bias to look for patterns. Investors are looking for the next Mark Zuckerberg, and when female leaders, when woman CEOs, don’t match that pattern, it doesn’t compute in people’s brains because this natural bias is so powerful.
Ryssdal: All right. So look, let me take you off the data train here for a minute, right? Because you’ve done a ton of research for this book. It shows, and obviously you’ve internalized it. But the subjective question is: Why is it this way?
Boorstin: You mean, why are women so underrepresented in leadership?
Ryssdal: Or flip that on its head. Why don’t men recognize this and take the hint?
Boorstin: First, I think the pandemic has shed light on the importance of many of the characteristics that women are more likely to lead with. And I am optimistic that this is a moment for change for everyone — male and female — to understand the importance of finding their own leadership strengths. And I think part of the problem is there just haven’t been that many stories out there of what different types of leadership success looks like. And I think, having those other patterns out there — these other images of what leadership can and should look like — I think that’s going to be a key piece in this puzzle in getting people to understand what the future of leadership can look like.
Ryssdal: So I don’t, I don’t usually do this, but since you wrote about them in the book, I’m going to ask you about your kids. You’ve got two boys, they’re 10 or so, right? Give or take?
Boorstin: One is 8 and one is 11.
Ryssdal: OK. They’re gonna grow up in a world that is different than you and I grew up in in terms of male and female roles, the way business is done. Do you think by the time they’re your age, the changes you’re talking about in this book will have come to pass?
Boorstin: I’m optimistic. I do. And in the book I write that when I was 13, my mom told me everything was going to be different, and that by the time I grew up, men and women would be equal, and I would have just as many chances to be a CEO or a senator or all of these things. And I frankly, I think she was wrong.
Ryssdal: Well yeah, because look around, right?
Boorstin: Yeah. But I think my boys will be living in a different world. And I think having my boys hear from me about all these amazing women who are changing the world — not just making money, but also changing the world — I think is a good thing for them to grow up with.
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