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A Fresh Take on Women Business Leaders: Release ‘The Struggle,’ Embrace the Success

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By Kim Shepherd, CEO
With Tom Brennan, Master Writer


How great is it to be a CEO? Not only do I get to nurture the culture of a great company, but I also get to speak to different groups about creating success through culture, through a performance-driven model and other best practices. Often it is organizations for women in business that invite me to speak, and they usually expect to hear about women’s struggles, suggestions for breaking the glass ceiling and words of motivation for women fighting the good fight.

Here’s the catch: I don’t think focusing on the struggle is such a good thing. I’m deeply grateful to all those who have struggled through the years to help women be where we are today. Without the efforts of the suffragettes or people like Betty Friedan I might not be a CEO today. After all, it’s been only 96 years since women won the right to vote in the U.S. Do you know anyone over 96? I do. The 19th Amendment is not ancient history — it’s only a human lifetime ago.

Time to shake the Etch-a-Sketch®

But women today should take a new approach. Every time we say, “We’re not equal,” we’re helping to create that reality, in the world and in our own minds. A great example: I have a friend who is a senior executive in a global pharma company, and she once told me that, every time the (male) CEO asks her into his office, she rushes to take off her red nail polish. I asked if the CEO had ever even mentioned nail polish to her. “No.” She has chosen to believe this, in spite of the fact that the company has employed her for longer than 20 years.

Besides, there are many factors behind the low numbers of women in management roles and the gender pay gap — and discrimination is just one of them. For example, women continue to pursue degrees and careers in areas in which management paths are fewer and pay is lower, like education, healthcare and social work. Behind that fact, however, is observation that societal dynamics compel women to choose such paths; Jessica Sheider and Elise Gould provide much more detail in a report from the Economic Policy Institute.

I think we’re seeing that change now, and the reason, plain and simple, is that younger generations of women either aren’t being taught that education and healthcare are “women’s work,” or they’re rejecting it. In fact, many women are starting to recognize how much economic clout they actually have.

Women Leaders Should Focus on the Positive

It’s one of the most important things women leaders can do: help other women focus on the power they already have, and not on the obstacles. Women may not be aware of it, but marketing professionals have known for years that women make spending decisions, and almost all marketing is targeted toward women. “Women now drive the world economy,” the Harvard Business Review announced in 2007. Globally women control $20 trillion in consumer spending, and pundits expect that number to increase.

I know all the studies say that we still have a salary gap, but that flies in the face of my experience as the leader of a company in the staffing space. I just don’t see it. Anyway, other studies indicate that it is changing; for example, a Wall Street Journal article claims that single, childless women from 22 to 30 years old are now making more, on average, than men in the same age range.

The fact is, women have the characteristics that companies want in today’s business world. More and more companies are seeing a correlation between success and the qualities that we often associate with women, like emotional intelligence. In staffing today, hard skills get you vetted, but soft skills get you hired.

Unfortunately, while they have the power, women may lack the confidence to seize and wield it. Katty Kay and Claire Shipman suggest that we won’t effectively address the career and salary gaps until we bridge the confidence gap. In their book, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know, they discuss how even women who are considered highly successful are plagued by self-doubt.

“The natural result of low confidence is inaction,” according to Kay and Shipman. “When women hesitate because we aren’t sure, we hold ourselves back.” While there’s a little more to their proposed solution, it rests on the simple assertion that women need to change their mindsets. To me that suggests that it’s time to rethink a lot of the old school assumptions around women in leadership roles.

Are Female CEOs Really So Rare?

It’s common knowledge that male CEOS far outnumber female CEOs at the high profile Fortune and S&P 500 corporations. In fact, Fortune recently reported that the percentage of women CEOs dropped to 4% in 2016. The numbers are factual, but they miss a bigger picture. These companies may be the upper echelon of the corporate world, but there are a LOT of women leading companies out there.

“A Golden Age for women entrepreneurs has begun,” writes Geri Stengal on The 2014 State of Women-Owned Businesses report supports that claim, sharing that the 2012 U.S. Census indicates a big jump in women-owned businesses over the past few years. A few other interesting facts from that report:

  • Combine women-owned with equally-owned business, and the number jumps to 47%.
  • Women are opening new businesses at a rate of more than 1200 per day.
  • Privately held companies, in general, tend to lag behind public companies in job growth, but privately-held, women-owned businesses have created a significant number of new jobs.

And even when a woman does hold a high-profile CEO position, there’s no guarantee that gender equity will follow. For example, role models like Meg Whitman, Marissa Mayer and Ginni Rometty are great, but the percentage of women in the tech industry still hovers around 39%.

Do Powerful Women Really become Queen Bees?

It happens, no doubt: there are women leaders who deliberately hinder other women from advancing. But this stereotype is more a Hollywood plot device than a general trend. Not all who wear Prada are devils. And companies looking for emotional intelligence and “female” characteristics aren’t looking for backstabbing. They’re looking for collaboration and mentoring relationships.

Recently a male executive asked me if it weren’t true that hierarchy is a “natural” way of organizing. I told him it’s one way, but that there are many others. People tend to accept the status quo rather than think of new ways.

Actually, hierarchy grew out of the need for a single decision maker in intense, do-or-die situations, like a warlord leading one tribe against another. Last time I surveyed companies’ mission statements, they were more about “working together to deliver exceptional customer service” and less about “destroying our enemies.”

This is not to say that hierarchy no longer has any validity, but rather that we should explore new organizing principles. For example, At Decision Toolbox (DT) we’ve created a “circularchy,” distributing power and accountability across the organization. As CEO, I am grateful to share the burden — and I also get to share great ideas from smart, talented people.

Circularchy works. DT is entirely virtual, and the majority of our staff are stay-at-home moms who are making good money and living good lives. All but one of our C-level execs is a woman, and most of the Directors and Managers are, too.

Do Women Really Need Guard Constantly Against Discrimination? 

Discrimination is real, and if and when it happens women need to take action. But the scandalous cases that blaze across the media are not the norm. Women shouldn’t let those scandals send them into defensive mode. Instead of being on guard because they are female, women should embrace their womanness and power. A lot of women entrepreneurs are launching their own businesses so they can do it their own way. They’re rejecting established models defined and dominated by men. Entrepreneur and author Joanna Krotz explores this idea in Being Equal Doesn’t Mean Being the Same: Why Behaving Like a Girl Can Change Your Life and Grow Your Business.

Those established models aren’t beyond changing, either. Look at the military. Just this year the U.S. military lifted the ban on women in combat. Women have been steadily deconstructing the old regime for years. Some has been through struggle, like lawsuits and protests, but much has been through demonstrating competence and talent.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, writing on, cites the example of two of the first women to graduate from the Army’s elite Ranger school, Captains Kristen Griest and Shaye Haver. According to Lemmon, that “shifted the conversation from ‘if women could meet the standard’ to ‘now that women have met the standard.’ While Griest and Haver became celebrated role models, they “reiterated that they had not sought the spotlight, only a spot in Ranger School.”

The first two women in the U.S. to break the military glass ceiling and achieve the rank of brigadier general (in 1970) did so by being women. Elizabeth Paschel Hoisington was Director of the Women’s Army Corps, and Anna Mae Hays was Chief of the Army Nurse Corps — both managed units numbering more than 10,000 personnel. According to a Pittsburgh Press article, both women believed in hard work and it took each more than 25 years of dedicated service to reach the goal.

The pro-struggle people may say that the administration deliberately chose women who were not known for being outspoken, and that may be true. To be sure, my point is not that women can advance by minding their manners and keeping their heads down. I’ve been called outspoken more than once. Instead, my point is that women can advance by calling on their own talents, building their own confidence, and showing the world what they can do.

Do Women Really Need Specific Salary Negotiating Tactics?

Based on what I’ve shared so far, I think women could approach a salary or promotion negotiation as an opportunity to boost their confidence. Society encourages women to be modest and to underestimate their value, but salary negotiations are NOT the time to be demure. Anyone who is preparing for a negotiation like this should do some research into their own market value.

It might be an eye-opener for some. In a sense you’re creating a sales pitch for your personal brand. Websites like, and offer tools to help you do this. Sites like these will provide a ballpark range based on broad market data, so you should also factor in things like education level, location and additional training. Actual accomplishments can add value to your pitch. Maybe you developed a new process, cut costs, or mentored others. Just about anyone can get a confidence boost from listing their own accomplishments.

It turns out that Millennial women may be great role models for the older generations. They believe in equity for women and men in the workplace, but they don’t care to call themselves “feminists.” Millennials tend to believe that feminists consider motherhood and career to be completely incompatible, according to psychologist Dr. Denise Cummins. Millennial women want it all, and as workplace structures loosen and evolve, it will be easier and easier for them to get it. And Generation Z may be the generation that simply refuses to see gender bias.

In a nutshell, then, women leaders are still important because they can help other women stop focusing on the struggle and start building on their strengths. If you are a woman leader, you can start by modeling that philosophy. Be strong, be brave, be yourself — your deep, true self. It may be the most radically effective strategy a woman leader can execute.


Connect with Kim on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Download Kim’s eBook, The Bite Me School of Management, for free 

Check out Kim’s newest book, Get Scrappy

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