Management · February 18, 2021

What We Can All Learn From Women in Leadership Roles

Women have been rising in the ranks of business for the past few decades, and that rise appears to be gathering steam. There are more female CEOs, founders and company leaders than ever before. Major policy changes are helping encourage this trend, such as the California law, that mandates all publicly traded companies have a certain percentage of women directors.


Having typically faced some adversity in getting to where they are now, women in leadership roles can bring a valuable perspective to the business community in difficult times. These experiences have produced strong, resilient leaders who can help respond to the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis and its economic impacts.

Rethinking leadership

The rise of women in high-ranking roles corresponds with a shift in what our culture values in business leaders. Although assertiveness and confidence—which have traditionally been seen as male traits—remain important, there's now more emphasis than ever placed on softer skills and characteristics like empathy and humility. This shift is likely driven by increased organizational complexity, technological advancements and a greater reliance on partners, suppliers and other firms. A more global business environment and a more diverse workforce also appear to be contributors.

With the rise in investor activism and employees demanding more than profits from their pension and retirement fund managers, more companies are evolving from a focus on maximizing shareholder value to a stakeholder-based strategic approach. Studies show that more diverse companies tend to perform better than their competitors, so having more women on boards and leadership teams can help drive business value.

Watching success in action

One individual who epitomizes this shift is former DuPont CEO and current Carbon CEO, Ellen Kullman. Kullman also sits on four large corporation boards, including Goldman Sachs. Her leadership style has been described as democratic. In a Fast Company interview, she says she empowers people because she understands that she can't do everything herself and that a well-functioning team drives great results. She successfully led DuPont through the Great Recession and is now leading Carbon through the novel coronavirus-caused recession by reinforcing how everyone is connected and "working toward the same broader purpose."

Another area where women have thrived in leadership roles is higher education. With the changing landscape in this field, women leaders' ability to simultaneously address multiple stakeholders' needs while empowering teams and delegating tasks is critically important. College and university closures have increased in recent years due to significant funding cuts, a shrinking pipeline of college students and questions regarding the value of a college education. The novel coronavirus greatly exacerbated these issues, hastening the demise of some institutions.

One notable woman in this field is Dr. Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania since 2004. During her tenure, she led the largest successful fundraising initiative in Penn's history and has doubled the number of low- and middle-income students, as well as first-generation college students, through an all-grant financial aid policy. Dr. Gutmann has also helped dramatically increase the university's innovation footprint through its Pennovation Works. As the daughter of low-income refugees who went to college on scholarships, she champions inclusion. She's renowned for building consensus and getting people on board to achieve even loftier goals.

Supporting women leadership

In times of crisis, advisors often advocate democratic qualities. At a time when many people are working from home, effectively delegating responsibility and involving team members in decision making are critical activities to maintain morale and keep employees focused. This is a time when women in leadership roles can shine—if they have the support they need to succeed.

Because of their individual strengths and experiences overcoming challenges, women leaders tend to pursue and advocate for goals that are consistent with more compassionate and egalitarian values. Looking to the examples of Kullman, Gutmann and other women in leadership positions who've stepped up to the challenges of the times, business leaders of all backgrounds can exemplify these traits when dealing with stressed employees, customers, suppliers and others impacted by COVID-19.

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