Data show that corporations see greater gains when they invest in the women in their ranks by ensuring they are represented among leadership roles and set up for professional success.
Ann Marie Petach, MSIA ’84, has long worked in senior roles at well-known companies including treasurer at Ford Motor Company and chief financial officer for BlackRock. Yet an important break came early in her career: leading an all-male team at a large organization in Portugal, in the thick of a crisis. “I was completely in over my head, but working on something hard evaporated all the biases. It was results; it was team work, and I had a good experience,” Petach said. “Had I not faced that crisis at the beginning, and had my mentor not advocated me for the role, I would have struggled establishing my credibility or proving my loyalty to that team.”
From that point onward, Petach was promoted into other senior leadership roles, joined multiple boards and currently serves as an adviser to Google. However, she sees few women landing similar challenging roles and believes this tendency is a mistake. “Putting people into hard, turbulent situations and letting them lead remains critical to seeing them succeed.”
Research indicates that companies also benefit when they put women in just such circumstances. The data show — and the business community has largely accepted — that having equal numbers of men and women in leadership positions helps a company become, and remain, successful. The findings are convincing: Women drive 70 to 80 percent of all consumer purchasing; women are more likely than men to hold a bachelor’s degree; and women make up 51 percent of the U.S. population, according to the recent census.
Meanwhile Catalyst, a nonprofit organization tracking women’s professional advancement, found that corporations with more women on boards of directors have improved financial performance — an important finding given that only 17 percent of Fortune 500 companies and 12 percent of Fortune 1000 companies have women board members in place.
Recent research from the Tepper School of Business further validates that smart companies do, in fact, experience profitable outcomes associated with hiring, utilizing and retaining women. Together with colleagues at MIT and the Brazilian School of Public and Business Administration, Anita Williams Woolley, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory, found that involving more women leads to an increase in collective intelligence in teams and organizations. Reporting on Woolley’s research, the Financial Times shared that the presence of more socially perceptive employees — more often women, as Woolley’s research reveals — helps teams perform much better. “We found people who are more socially perceptive may monitor their own behavior and realize they (and others) are dominating. These same people notice when others are quiet and ask them to weigh in,” she said. “Higher social perceptiveness means we contribute more equally to teamwork.” As a result, teams in Woolley’s study that included more women demonstrated more success on assignments requiring collaboration.
Corporations Make Gender Equality a Priority
Growing numbers of corporations recognize the importance of effectively attracting and retaining women, and ensure they advance through the ranks. A recent McKinsey & Group report shows 75 percent of corporate CEOs include gender equality within their top 10 business priorities. More corporations also work harder to ensure women are nominated to and join boards of directors, with specific initiatives to ensure board members challenge unspoken biases against women (and underrepresented minorities). As a board member herself, Petach sees this positive shift occurring. For instance, when board members use different language to discuss the performances of men over women, or when fewer women become candidates for new jobs and promotions, she hears men speak up. “That is the only way things will change: Men, and women, must drive those discussions,” she said.
Equally positive, more corporations are increasingly involving women senior engineers and women designers in product development on items for which women are key decision makers or customers. Petach saw Ford successfully assign a team of women engineers to design a minivan popular with women. “Having women steer these designs — such as ensuring women can easily lift car seats and enter the vehicles — just makes sense when the literature shows 85 percent of buying decisions for autos are made by women. Until then, men made most of the design decisions; there were no women bringing that perspective, and this goes across all industries.”
Candice Irvin, MBA ’02, managing director at Deloitte, also sees more diversity in her workplace. It is valuable when working teams include the voices of women and underrepresented minorities. “Having their point of view feels essential; you need that insight to be balanced,” she added. Also, more alumni and experts see more mentorship programs offered at top-tier corporations. Both Irvin and Petach attributed their own growth to advocacy and coaching from valued mentors who guided them toward more challenging roles.
The Road Ahead
Even so, shortfalls still exist, and research shows corporations must work harder to better recruit and retain women employees. The McKinsey & Group report finds women remain underrepresented at every level in the corporate pipeline. Corporate America promotes men at rates 30 percent higher than women during their early career. Meanwhile, women remain more likely than men to spend five or more years in the same entry-level role.
Tepper School research reveals a significant dynamic that organizations need to be aware of to improve the promotion rates of women. According to a paper coauthored by Senior Associate Dean Laurie Weingart and Linda Babcock, James M. Walton Professor of Economics and head of the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at the Dietrich College, women tend to say yes more to “office favors” (i.e. tasks that do not contribute directly to their career success) at work than men. Their paper, recently accepted to the American Economic Review, shows that a woman’s advancement is hindered when she is distracted or over-extended by tasks not directly related to her role, such as taking notes at meetings, tidying the office fridge or organizing a colleague’s birthday celebration.
The research also found that both women and men tend to expect women more so than their male colleagues to accept responsibility for these kinds of favors. And while men don’t suffer a drop in reputation when they decline these tasks — and, interestingly, are in fact viewed more favorably when they agree — the opposite occurs with women: Women don’t benefit when they perform such tasks but are regarded more negatively when they decline. (Weingart’s “I Just Can’t Say No Club” served as a personal support group that emerged around this phenomenon. See sidebar.)
Another reason women may not achieve the same gains as their male peers is that women generally don’t negotiate as often as men do. According to Babcock’s research, women feel greater fear of damaging their relationships with their managers by asking for more opportunities, and they see fewer opportunities that warrant such negotiation. An article from The Guardian citing Babcock’s research states, “Women don’t negotiate as much as men do because they don’t know that they can negotiate and often have less information about what they could be asking for.” That is, women are more likely to assume that they don’t have control over their salaries and that their good work will be rewarded without their having to ask. Women may also have less information because they typically are not invited into insider networks in which men discuss their negotiations casually.
Alumni echo that much of the necessary change ahead remains cultural. Petach noted, for instance, that many women still view Wall Street and banks as combative, stressful cultures in which they don’t wish to partake.
Woolley added that organizations wanting to see people collaborate must recruit more women while ensuring the environment is not overly interpersonally competitive, a dynamic that diminishes productive cooperation. Her research shows that female-dominant teams do worse when members are competing with each other for recognition, such as promotions, while male-dominant teams do slightly better. “In companies where men once dominated, this will require a climate shift.” Woolley also suggested when including more women, managers must ensure that evaluations and rewards happen at the group level as well — rewarding what they are achieving as a team versus individually — and then factor collective successes into promotions.
Others ask that managers, especially in male-dominated industries, not assume that in hiring and training a woman, time invested in the employee becomes jeopardized when the woman stops working to start a family. “Men are just as likely to switch careers or firms as women are to take leave for their families,” Irvin said. Deloitte, which Working Mother added to its best 100 places to work, announced plans this summer to offer a 16-week paid family leave for all employees for caregiving. Irvin is proud of this shift and expects more financial services companies will follow Deloitte’s lead. “We encourage men to take the leave, to make it easier for women to take the leave as well.”
Also, women are encouraged to proactively ask for what they need from an employer to be successful rather than leave their job. Petach suggested creating healthy boundaries to avoid feeling constantly “on” and accessible. “Tell your manager (and yourself) ‘I’m offline now, unless it’s an emergency, unless it’s this person.’” Women should also feel comfortable asking for flexible work schedules, if needed, and managers should comply. M. Elise Hyland, MSIA ’00, E ’88, ’81, now executive vice president at EQT Corporation, an oil and gas company in Pennsylvania, requested early on to work three days a week while her children were young. She was the first within her team to make this request, yet this flexibility made a huge difference, she said.
On the same note, women must pay attention to what kinds of assignments are loading their schedules, Weingart said. If their time is consumed by tasks that do not contribute to their career advancement, women may overexert themselves to accommodate. Hyland added, “In some companies, where only a few women leaders exist, others feel pressure to be superstars — that’s not realistic — maybe a setback means someone wasn’t the right fit, not that they weren’t good.”
Companies and executives can make strides by better understanding — and ensuring their new employees also understand — what qualities help a talent rise through the ranks. Robert Kelley, Distinguished Service Professor of Management and author of How to Be a Star at Work, finds men and women must demonstrate the same work strategies to distinguish themselves as star rather than average performers. However, their familiarity with these work strategies may differ. For example, stars are required to go into the “white space” in an organization — an area outside the confines of their job that helps the company meet its critical path. Kelley finds that men are both more likely to know it’s expected of stars to enter the white space and that it’s acceptable to do so. Women are often less aware of this and therefore more reluctant to move outside their job description. “Once women (and men) become aware they can enter the white space, they take on more star-like initiatives,” Kelley said. “So one thing corporations can do differently is ensure women feel safe to go beyond a manager’s expectations.”
More Helpful Mentorship
Catalyst research shows men struggle with giving women hard, tough feedback; therefore, they offer softer — or different — feedback from what they offer to other men, which can stall women from advancing in their careers. Petach thinks of her own early career growth in Portugal and the precious feedback from her mentor who directed her to avoid hedging: un-executive sounding language like “I think” or “in my opinion.” “It was someone offering me honest feedback on flaws — a good thing, because we all have flaws, we all have differentiators — that helped me grow.”
Adding to this idea, research by Rosalind Chow, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory, shows sponsorship, as opposed to mentorship, from managers helps women advance. Specifically, men and women who have advocates for them within the organization are more successful. However, women who do not have sponsors end up in positions of lower power and influence than men who lack sponsorship. “Effective leadership means not only identifying the best talent and helping them to improve, but also giving them the opportunities they need to become more visible in the organization,” Chow said. “Making managers accountable for the success of their protégés is more likely to make this happen.” (See sidebar on ways to make mentoring work.)
What’s at Stake
Irvin and Petach said they suspect that corporations not willing to adapt risk becoming irrelevant to a large demographic. Woolley added that the trends are very clear: Corporations that do not hire more women will have a smaller pool of people from which to hire in the United States. Additionally, the shift toward more collaboration means corporations must hire people who function well in cooperative settings, which again points to more women. Her research indicates that women are proven collaborators, allowing more space for everyone to contribute to conversations and teamwork. “If you don’t take these trends seriously, your organization will struggle.”
Ultimately, companies that underutilize women as critical cognitive resources available to them miss out on the alternative perspectives and approaches to management and problem-solving that research shows are highly effective, Weingart said. “We find time and time again, when there is a large imbalance in gender such that women are marginalized, large organizations run into problems and underperform. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
Training Women Leaders. . .
With women making up only 36–40 percent of MBA graduates from U.S. business schools, universities increasingly focus on women leadership, and the Tepper School is no exception. Through its Executive Education programs, the business school recognizes the unique challenges organizations face with developing and retaining women in management roles, particularly in technical fields, and coaches women executives on helpful skills including negotiation, team conflict and team management. The Tepper School also hosts the Leadership and Negotiation Academy for Women, now in its fourth year.
Academy director Leanne Meyer said she feels uplifted seeing the cohorts that come through. “We’ve seen graduates entering into very strong leadership positions. We’ve also heard back from companies that feel they’ve received an excellent return on their investment; they’ve seen their succession pipeline fill up nicely and strongly. And companies have seen considerable cost savings within their organization because of the negotiation skills. It’s exciting — we’ve seen strong results coming out of this program.”
What the academy does best is teach and develop skills, like negotiation, that often don’t exist in a woman’s repertoire, Meyer adds. “Women have worked hard to remove gender from the equation, but we must address biases in a helpful way for an organization. We coach women leaders to be the leaders they want to be.”
With four cohorts in 48 companies, Meyer looks forward to remaining a catalyst for change. Linda Babcock, James M. Walton Professor of Economics and a faculty member for the academy, calls its highest hope “eliminating barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace.”
Just Say No . . .
When did you last decline a work favor? If you’re a woman, research from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon shows that you probably agree to more “grunt work” than men — and that others ask you more often than your male colleagues to do such work. This tendency ultimately leads to burnout more than advancement.
To better cope with the problem in their own lives, colleagues Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, M.J. Tocci, Lise Vesterlund and Senior Associate Dean Laurie Weingart in 2010 created the “I Just Can’t Say No Club,” to brainstorm on the problem and ways to say no.
“We quickly realized we needed to be more thoughtful about saying yes, distinguishing between tasks that will help our career and those that won’t. And we had to be more realistic about our capacity,” said Weingart.
“We each had different reasons for saying yes when it would have been better to say no,” said Weingart. “Pride in being asked or what we called the ‘diva’ moment, fear the opportunity may not arise again, feelings of obligation, or believing we couldn’t say no given who was asking.”
Yet, by saying yes to work that is “non-promotable” or taking on too much, women may not advance in their careers, may get burned out and take away work from people who could actually benefit from doing the task.
“This results in women not doing the important work, not because they can’t, but because they are saying yes to the wrong things,” Weingart added.
From their meetings, the professors generated strategies for responding to favor requests: Avoid responding immediately; only say yes if the task is promotable; and if you say yes, decide what you are going to give up to make room. If you say no, suggest someone who could really benefit from the task.
And perhaps most importantly, managers must mindfully (and equally) ask favors of both men and women.
Star Mentoring Tips . . .
Mentors can certainly help men and women rise in the ranks; however, no clear recipe exists for how to secure one. Robert Kelley, Distinguished Service Professor of Management, offers advice:
• Ask yourself what value and expertise you possess that leadership might need. Take every opportunity, whether at meetings or in the elevator, to talk and get to know them. Then determine what struggles they face and how you can help. Kelley recalled how one new team member realized, after a few informal chats, her computational modeling expertise could help leadership at the pharmaceutical firm where she worked. Her expertise ultimately saved them nine months of work. This result got her leaders’ attention and gave them a reason to mentor her over other candidates.
• Attend relevant seminars and programs your leadership lacks the time to attend, and then share the results through a short white paper or at a casual brown bag lunch seminar. Additionally, share articles of interest with people. Your colleagues will see you working to benefit them; in turn, they’ll want to help you. • Ensure cross-gender mentoring exists, said M. Elise Hyland, MSIA ’00, E ’88, ’81. “Having women mentoring male professionals and vice versa breaks down preconceived notions and helps more newcomers see they are capable of getting to these high-level positions.
• Don’t count on finding a higher level executive who will champion you and your career. Great mentors are rare, and not enough of them are available to meet the growing demand. Mentoring someone takes time, a personal willingness to invest in someone else’s career, and a chemistry between the individuals that cannot be forced or demanded. Instead of looking up the chain for a mentor, look sideways or even outside the organization. Until then, become your own mentor by paying attention to your organization’s dynamics, by reading widely about leadership, and by taking time to reflect on what you’re doing and learning. Even consider mentoring someone else as a way to get outside your own bubble.