Women at the Top: Are They Making a Difference in Business?

by Sue Kern-Fleischer

Women At The TopYahoo’s recent appointment of Marissa Mayer to CEO when she was pregnant with her first child had many women cheering and others wondering just how effective she will be juggling a high-pressure job and a new baby. One thing is for sure: It opened up more dialogues about women breaking the barriers and advancing to the C-suite. Missing from the discussion, however, was any analysis of leadership character.

So, what type of personality traits and leadership skills does a woman need to climb to the top of the corporate ladder or run her own company as a successful entrepreneur? And do women inherently possess leadership styles that, in the business world of today, give them an edge over men?

“The nature of today’s work is much more conducive to women’s style of leadership. People are looking for empathetic leaders. There’s a need for more employee engagement, empowerment and consensus building,” says Amy Hillman, ASU’s executive dean of the W. P. Carey School of Business, which, with 10,000 students and 230 faculty, was recently ranked by U.S. News & World Report in the Top 30 schools in the nation for undergraduate business, full-time MBA and part-time MBA programs. A renowned management professor and former editor of the Academy of Management Review, Hillman takes the helm as dean of the W. P. Carey School of Business on March 1, succeeding retiring dean, Robert Mittelstaedt. “We’ve broadened our perspective about what a leader should behave like,” Hillman says. Changes in the work environment and a focus on the “knowledge economy,” which produces ideas and innovation, have contributed to this shift in attitudes toward women advancing to the top. “It used to be that women who advanced were more masculine and authoritarian in their leadership styles. They had to act like a man to get the job,” Hillman says.


Do Women Lead Differently from Men?

Francine Hardaway believes the way women lead and manage is a contributing factor to why we are seeing more women advance to the C-suite level. “We have stopped considering employees as chattel and begun realizing talent is scarce and has to be nurtured. Women are much better at team building and nurturing. Ironically, that doesn’t come from sports; it comes from mothering and leading a family. Women make most of the decisions in the family, and they learn to get to consensus among all the kids including the spouse,” she says. As co-founder of Stealthmode Partners, a 13-year-old accelerator for entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, Hardaway has consulted with more than 700 companies, helping them both as a marketer and a mentor. She blogs about technology, entrepreneurship and healthcare policy issues on her company’s website and is also a contributing writer for Huffington Post and Fast Company. “I spent almost 20 years being the only woman in the room full of community leaders, and having them roll their eyes when I spoke. I only changed the perception with incredible performance and total authenticity,” she says. “I was never afraid to say what I thought. Ask Jerry Colangelo, who was the big community hot shot during most of my business career. I was on a board with him and he constantly had to deal with my raised hand and interruptions as I tried to set the great man straight.”

She also believes there is a big difference between men’s and women’s management styles, stating that “women are surreptitious in their power, whereas men totally telegraph theirs — and telegraph it even when they don’t have any.” Hardaway encourages women to rely on their intuition. “Women have more modest goals, which means they fail less often and swing for the fences less often. They are more willing to collaborate, and that’s where they have the edge,” she says. “Men are now beginning to realize they have to deal with women, so they are beginning to emulate our management styles. In a few more generations, after more of them have been house husbands, they will be better managers and leaders.”

Sarah Strunk is a director at Fennemore Craig and one of four on the firm’s management committee, which runs the 127-year-old law firm. When she was a child, her grandfather told her, “Girls aren’t lawyers,” so she is particularly proud that 26 percent of her firm’s equity partners are women. The firm was recognized last September in New York with the 2012 Women in Law Empowerment Forum Gold Standard Certification award. Strunk says because she is wired in her job to find commonalities, she’s not convinced that women are advancing to the top because of their different leadership styles, but rather because it has taken this much time for more women to enter the work force as highly educated job candidates. “There’s a larger pool of talent to draw from,” she says.

Collaboration and nurturing are two critical traits for anyone who wants to be successful, male or female. “You have to bring on people who want to help you and if you don’t nurture them, they won’t stay,” Strunk says, pointing out that good leaders understand when it is time to step aside and let others take the lead. “A lot of lawyers like the limelight and have a hard time stepping away from it. But you can’t focus on being the center of attention at the expense of building your business. You have to be willing to turn over the responsibility for business to the younger lawyers in order to ensure longevity,” she says.

Mary Juetten is founder and CEO of Traklight.com, a cutting-edge website and software program that provides inventors, creators and small businesses with the tools to identify, secure and manage their intellectual property. A resident incubator client of the Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation at GateWay Community College, Traklight.com is gaining attention for its pioneering technology, including the IP Vault, which allows customers to store and time-stamp ideas and inventions, such as songs, scripts, videos and photos. A native of Nova Scotia, Juetten was the youngest vice president in the British Columbia college system and she helped save the largest college from receivership. She also worked for a law firm in Vancouver as a director of finance before moving to Phoenix in 2005 and attending law school at Arizona State University.

Juetten recalls working as a financial auditor in the 1980s, when there were no female partners in her firm or others like hers. “They were trying desperately to create ways for women to advance but it boiled down to hours in the office. Most of us did not wish to have an affirmative action plan to advance; everyone wanted to be promoted on merit,” she says. As for management styles, she doesn’t believe gender plays a role. “I have worked with female and male leaders, and, reflecting back, their styles of management seem to have been independent of gender. Sometimes I think it is a large mistake to assume that women collaborate more or men are more direct; I think it is a personality or leadership style,” she says.


Slow Trend 

Looking back to 2000, there were only three female CEOs running Fortune 500 companies. By 2009, there were 15 female CEOs running Fortune 500 companies, including Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox, the first African-American female CEO in the United States. In November 2012, there were 40 female CEOs in the Fortune 1000. That translates to only 3.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions filled by women and 4.0 percent of Fortune 1000 CEO positions filled by women.

“A lot of press goes to the Marissa Mayers of the world, but they are exceptions rather than the rule. While these numbers represent an improvement from years past, it is a very slow trend and is still a pretty small percentage,” says Suzanne Peterson, assistant professor in the management department at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business. Peterson is a contributing author to the Handbook of Top Management Teams Research by Edward Elgar and she has published articles in Personnel Psychology, Journal of Applied Psychology, The Leadership Quarterly and other academic publications. Her current CEO leadership research broadly focuses on the impact of CEOs and other top managers’ leadership styles, traits and experiences on the performance of those individuals and teams that report to them. “Women now represent about half of the total work force so, in some cases, it may just be sheer numbers that are getting women in the seats,” she says, stating that diversity in gender becomes a recruiting tool for other great women. “It is typically a trend that a company with a female CEO or female board members will have more female emerging leaders.”

Changes in the board room are moving at a slower pace. According to a USA Today report citing women’s issues research group Catalyst, women held 15.2 percent of Fortune 500 board seats in 2009, and in both 2009 and 2010, 12 percent of Fortune 500 companies had no women as directors on their boards. Studies show that firms with more female management leadership tend to be more profitable. A 2007 Catalyst report revealed that there was a 16.7 percent return on equity for companies that have at least three female board members; the average for all companies analyzed was 11.5 percent.



Count Anne Mariucci among the many people expecting to see more women in the boardroom and an accelerated pace of women advancing to the C-suite. A private equity investor, Mariucci serves on the boards of multiple companies and organizations, including the Arizona Board of Regents, and she is best known for her 23-year tenure with Del Webb Corporation, where she advanced to president and CEO of the large-scale community developer and homebuilder. “The pipeline is stacked with women who are well-educated, committed and have wonderful communication and relational skills. There’s no reason why boardrooms today should remain dominated by white males. Fortunately, there is a tremendous focus now among boards, large shareholders and board search firms that diversity is not only aspired to but is expected,” Mariucci says.

Mariucci grew up in Omaha, moving around as child and learning how to adapt to change. She excelled in competitive sports and moved to Tucson upon securing a golf scholarship to the University of Arizona. Her first full-time job, at age 19, was in public accounting in a firm that is now KPMG. After three years, she joined American Continental, which, at the time, was Arizona’s largest home-building company. She accepted a ground-level position with Del Webb in 1984 and spent the next two decades “growing up professionally” and achieving all of her corporation ambitions and titles before she turned 50. As for her leadership style, she had to conform to what the business culture demanded at that time. “Toughness and aggressiveness was expected and rewarded,” Mariucci recalls. Women were also expected to work harder and there was less tolerance for mistakes. There was a fear that women might be soft, so she and others like her had to go to the other extreme in order to fit in. “In some cases, we had no choice but to become that person. It was an era in which the corporate culture defined us as people,” she says. It was also an era in which she became a trailblazer. “When I started in my career, there were very few role models and few women in senior management. There were no female board members. By the time I reached 30, there were no women working in anything I did. It was easy to be noticed as the only female executive, but it was lonely,” she says.

Watching today’s female leaders invigorates Mariucci, and she is particularly proud of watching women she has mentored advance to the C-suite. “Women are more free today to be true to themselves. Some may be naturally more aggressive, but you see plenty of examples of women who don’t lead with aggressiveness — they are tough, performing and demanding, like [Facebook COO] Sheryl Sandberg, but she gets the job done and is a nice person at the same time,” she says.


More Women Going into Business for Themselves

Arizona is one of the fastest-growing and most thriving states for women-owned businesses, according to the State of Women-owned Business Report, which was commissioned by American Express OPEN. In 2012, an estimated 8.3 million women-owned businesses were operating in the United States, generating nearly $1.3 trillion in revenue and employing nearly 7.7 million people. Arizona ranked within the top five states in which the number, revenues and employment of women-owned firms have increased well above the national average between 1997 and 2012.

Georganne Bryant exemplifies what the statistics tell us. She opened Frances, a vintage boutique, in central Phoenix in 2006 and Smeeks, a candy store, in 2009. Since launching her modern vintage boutique, which carries a whimsical mix of apparel, paper goods and other items, sales have increased steadily by 10 percent. She moved Smeeks to the Biltmore Fashion Park two months ago and business has been going well.

Bryant says she has never encountered any big differences when working with men versus women. She secured her loan for the Smeeks move with no challenges and she credits male and female mentors for helping her along the way. “I love to collaborate with other businesses and do so regularly,” she says. “I really feel small businesses have to band together to succeed in the community.”


Great Leaders Spend Time with People, Not Tasks

W. P. Carey’s Peterson is quick to point out that men and women are naturally different in some ways, but the issue is less about the fact that the differences exist than it is about how those differences are perceived. “If men get heated in a meeting, they are labeled passionate while women are labeled emotional. If men say what they think, they are direct while women who do the same are considered aggressive. Men who don’t have time to focus on relationships are task-masters or results-drivers while women are unapproachable. So, are men and women really doing things differently or is it more that doing the same things looks different on men versus women? That is a big empirical question,” Peterson says.

Peterson’s research also reveals that men do more informal networking than women and women tend to stay in their offices to get work done. “This frequency of communication plugs men into their networks and keeps them ‘in the know’ when jobs come up or key opportunities present themselves. Women may also be more likely to hide behind email believing it’s efficient. The question is whether it is effective,” she says, stating the irony is that women may be somewhat more natural relationship-builders but often don’t make the time to showcase that strength. “The pressure to get results often hinders great leadership. Great leaders spend time with people, not with tasks,” she says.

Lynne King Smith and her husband Brad Smith are a great example of Peterson’s theory that great leaders spend time with people, not tasks — only in this case, Lynne is the people person and Brad is better with tasks. The married couple founded TicketForce 10 years ago and have expanded their ticketing service to 49 states and Canada. With 15 employees, TicketForce works with more than 100 contracted clients and some 400 clients of one-time events, providing them with ticketing software and marketing assistance to promote their events.

When they first launched the business, Brad served in the CEO role until he pushed for Lynne to take over as CEO in 2010 and he resumed work as chief business development officer. “Brad is more entrepreneurial than I am and we have different styles of leadership,” Lynne King Smith says. “It is tough to make generalizations between men and women, [but] I think women are generally more about being … who you are as opposed to what you do. For Brad, it’s about doing. A good day for me is having a great conversation with an employee or a client. For him, it has to do with how many tasks he checked off his list.” As for more women advancing to the C-suite, Smith believes it has more to do with a generational shift. “The barriers continue to come down, more women are graduating from college and there’s more talent out there. My kids’ generation doesn’t look at gender at all. In 20 years, we’ll see a vast change,” she says.

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