What Happens When Women Lead?

Whether you’re happy about it or not, we lost our chance in 2016 not only for the first woman president, but the first chance to observe what the country would be like under female leadership.

Many companies likewise haven’t experienced this sea change in leadership—or would it be a sea change at all?

An article in December in The Atlantic explores what changes, and what doesn’t, under female leadership. Many speculate that more women at the helm in more companies means more opportunities throughout companies for women. The article notes: “One report on 21,000 firms from 91 countries by the Peterson Institute for International Economics concluded that having women on the board increases the ranks of women executives. (It also found that companies with women on the boards tend to be more profitable than those with just men.) And a study of New York City advertising agencies over a 13-year period found that “when an agency has more female managers, more newly created jobs are first filled by women.”

Do you think women in power usually leads to more women filling the lower ranks? As a feminist, I want to believe this, but my past experience tells me something different. In the earliest part of my career, when it may have been the most meaningful, I experienced female competitiveness rather than support, and I experienced that at least at one other pivotal junction, when a former male colleague had to level with me that the reason I didn’t get the job as a freelancer was because the hiring manager (a woman) didn’t like my looks. He said that after I left the interview, she “tore me apart” for the bag I was carrying, and other points he was too embarrassed to share. This hiring manager, as a woman herself, has a reputation for not working well with women younger than herself, or possibly any woman.

There is an unfortunate stereotype of the catty female relationship in which two women can’t share “territory,” even office space, without fighting each other. I’d like to say that isn’t true, but I think it often is. Well, I think it often is when the company only has a small number of women, and a fight for resources ensues, just as it would any time there is a very small population and a limited set of opportunities. If a company were 90 percent female, and there was only a very small population of men, then I would expect the same dynamic to occur, in which the men fight each other for the small number of opportunities available, rather than supporting one another. What do you think?

To create a supportive female community at your company, it’s important first to have enough women employees of all different ages and backgrounds to compose a community. Just a handful of female employees doesn’t make a company diverse or inclusive, or capable of offering meaningful female mentorship opportunities. Once you have a strong women’s community in place at your company, what comes next? Should women employees have their own internal social media site? Or do you think creating sub-communities within the larger employee community is divisive?

I think there are unique challenges facing women in the work world that men—even those who handle a great deal of the parenting in their household—don’t experience. Most men still don’t have the same pressure placed on them to carry a full load at work and at home. It seems that society still judges a mother who can’t make it to the majority of her child’s extracurricular activities more harshly than a father who can’t, and a mother who wants to come back to work a few weeks after giving birth often is looked at with raised eyebrows, unlike a man, for whom not taking any more than a long weekend following a child’s birth wouldn’t be considered strange. Remember all the judgmental conversation (the fact that there was any conversation) when Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer chose to just take a few weeks off following the birth of her twins a few years ago? Would that conversation had taken place if the CEO was a man?

When a company is truly diverse, and there is a strong community of women, sometimes having a woman at the top can make a huge difference in improving the work lives of other women at the company. When Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook and author of the famous book, “Lean In,” was pregnant with her first child and working at Google, she was running late, and had to park far from the door to the building. She was having a hard pregnancy, and realized that she couldn’t sprint across the parking lot, as she would have done if she weren’t pregnant. At that point, she realized the value of adding special parking spaces near the front door especially for pregnant women. “I’m embarrassed that I didn’t realize pregnant women needed reserved parking until I experienced my own aching feet. As one of Google’s most senior women, didn’t I have a special responsibility to think of this?” she wrote in the introduction to Lean In. Would a man at Google have ever thought of this? Maybe, but you have to admit, a woman executive had special insight to offer in this case.

How does your company encourage a community of women that is large and strong enough to be supportive? How do you encourage women executives to share insights that may never have occurred to their male colleagues?

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