3 Ways Women Leaders Are Improving Corporate America


While women in the workforce have evolved and gained ground over the years, national statistics indicate there still exists a large gender-biased gap at the top. In fact, women account for only 6.4% of the CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies.

Despite this, the women leaders who've earned coveted C-suite level spots in corporate America have changed the landscape and paved the way for aspiring leaders.

In our new book, Uplifting Women* (*Who Happen to be Women), we highlight 25 of the nation's most accomplished and influential women business leaders—who we personally interviewed—to uncover how each of them empowers and uplifts others as they seek to progress in their lives and careers.

And, along the way, we learned that those leaders breaking the glass ceiling are benefiting companies (and people) across the globe.

1. Diversity Improves Performance

According to a study conducted by global research firm MSCI ESG covering global trends in diversity on corporate boards, companies that have strong female leadership generate a return on equity of 10.1%, versus 7.4% for those without. Further, companies lacking board diversity, tend to face more governance-related challenges.

And many of the leaders in Uplifting Leaders concur.

“Women are more collaborative. They're willing to be questioned, and they consider other people's opinions and needs," says Darla Stuckey, President and CEO of the Society for Corporate Governance.

“Good women leaders aren't scared to ask the tough questions."

But the truth is, regardless of gender, no leader reaches the top alone. Running a business simply isn't a one-person job.

“One person can't ever have all of the best ideas or the best vision or the best way of getting things done," says Jenniffer Deckard, President and CEO of Fairmount Santrol in Uplifting Leaders.

“The more diversity of thought, experience, perspective and expertise, the better. It's the same for any group trying to solve, develop or accomplish something. And, that applies from corporate boardrooms to PTAs," she adds.

Research published by the American Sociological Review reinforces this: “Gender diversity [in the workplace] is associated with increased sales revenue, more customers, and greater relative profits."

So, while a leader's gender may not always be the singular driver of success, it's the diversity of the team that they assemble that truly matters.

Barbara Snyder, president of Case Western Reserve University has similar thoughts: “All the successful leaders I know and emulate have assembled really talented teams because each one of them has recognized they can't do it alone."

2. Women Leaders Use Emotional Intelligence

“[Women] probably delve into the emotional quality of things differently. Not to say that men don't—and some more than others," says Dr. Jerry Sue Thornton, CEO of Dream/Catcher Educational Consulting Services.

“Men build teams, but those teams aren't necessarily inclusive. Each team member may be doing his or her own thing toward a team goal. But women are more inclusive in helping each other perform their roles, in helping each other be successful."

According to brain and behavioral science experts, because of a woman's neurological makeup, she more typically uses emotional empathy skills—the kind of empathy in which one feels the emotions of others.

As a result, women tend to be better at sensing how others are reacting and thus nurture closer relationships.

Adena Friedman, President and CEO of financial giant Nasdaq, recommends women use this to their advantage. Friedman states, “When you listen and try to see deeply into the psyche of your client or employee, you can gain a deeper understanding of what needs to be done to improve the product or your relationship with the company."

3. Women Leaders Uplift Others

“Because I spent my entire career in male-dominated companies, I've tried to inspire other women to stick with it, to ultimately achieve that better balance," says Karen Parkhill, Executive Vice President and CFO of healthcare innovator Medtronic, said. “I know that the world, our companies and our communities will be much better off when we have greater gender balance."

Karen is just one of many female leaders throughout the country who've made a determined effort to uplift others.

Robin Kilbride, President, CEO and Chairman of the Board of the Smithers-Oasis Company, attributes gratitude as the motivator for growing future leaders.

“Because so many people created opportunities for me, I have a responsibility to create opportunities for others," she says.

That commitment also rings true for Stuckey who was passed up for CEO twice over several years because a lack of management experience. Today, three senior women report to her, and she has made sure they all have management responsibilities so they won't face the same challenge.

Women are uplifting others in their legacies, as well.

When Ilene Lang, former President and CEO of Catalyst, retired in 2014, the company honored her by establishing the Lang Legacy Fund.

“The money contributed will continue the causes I was most passionate about—advancing women of color, inclusive leadership training and engaging men as partners in gender equality," Lang states.

What's the bottom line? More women in leadership positions yield improved workplaces and better business results. So, let's aim to turn to the tide—to shift currents in a positive direction so more women rise to the top. After all, it's not just the right thing to do; it's just plain smart business.

3 Min Read

Five Essential Lessons to Keep in Mind When You're Starting Your Own Business

"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.

Find A Need And Fill It

I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.

Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.

Have Working Capital And Credit

There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.

I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.

Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.

My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.

Know Your Product Thoroughly

I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?

My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.

My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!

More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.

Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth

I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.

I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.

Delegate From The Bottom Up

I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.

In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.