Women in the Workplace: Where They Shine, Where They Struggle

Many women say there needs to be more female executives in the workplace.

June 21, 2009, 5:36 PM

June 21, 2009— -- As the economic debacle of the last year is reviewed and dissected, there are more than a few who note that if women had been in charge on Wall Street, some of the financial risks would not have been taken and we'd be in much better shape right now.

"Women don't tend to bet the farm because their children live there," says Betty Spence, president of the National Association for Female Executives. "People used to say it was a drawback that women were risk averse, but I don't think they're saying that anymore."

That doesn't mean women don't have a thing or two to learn. While women make up nearly half the American work force, and the number of women who are breadwinners has grown with the shake-up in the economy, some women business leaders admit that women still need to improve some of their business savvy.

For example, Spence notes that more women need to "understand the power of the profit and loss positions and what it means to be in charge of the money that's coming in and out."

"They need to start positioning themselves very early in their careers to be on that track," she says.

A recent Development Dimensions International study of global leadership found that not nearly as many women are in accelerated-development programs as early in their careers as men, which means their chances for executive promotion diminish. Specifically, there were 28% more men in first-level leadership programs, while at the executive level, there were 50% more men than women in the high-potential programs.

Still, the case is being strongly made that women are good for business, and companies that want to survive — and thrive — in a global economy need to understand that. Studies have shown women to be more collaborative, more inclusive, more flexible and more empathetic, which President Obama said was important when making his final determinations for a Supreme Court nominee.

Catherine Kaputa recently interviewed more than 150 women for her new book, "The Female Brand: Using the Female Mindset to Succeed in Business," and she says it's clear that women take a more "holistic" approach to doing business.

"Companies these days are global, and it's important to build a consensus. Women are empathetic — they can see the other point of view and that makes other people really feel like they're being heard. They come out of the experience feeling good," Kaputa says. "You alienate people if you don't listen to them and communicate."

Spence notes that women have different management styles than men — but not different skills.

"Women are what the 21st century needs. They're good for business. We can't afford not to have them at the top," Spence says.

Still, both Spence and Kaputa note that women still need to work on several areas of business leadership in order to be more successful, including:

- Better networking. "Men are much more likely to help anyone, even someone they barely know," Kaputa says. "Women think they need to know someone fairly well in order to help them so women don't have as many contacts as men. That's a weakness in business."

One example of that may be evident in a recent Harvard Business Publishing study finding that on Twitter, while men and women "follow" a similar number of users, men have 15% more followers than women. "Men also have more reciprocated relationships, in which two users follow each other," the report says. It was also noted that this difference may suggest that women are less compelled to have followers, "or have more stringent thresholds for reciprocating relationships."

- Establishing a strong personal brand. "Women often underplay what they've done and the problem is when you do that, people will start to believe you,' Kaputa says. "Women have to get better at promoting themselves — what they stand for, what makes them different than someone else. They need to fight for their message."

- Doing their homework. "Women still don't expect a glass ceiling, but it's there and they need to be prepared. They should do their due diligence and work for companies that have women on the board of directors or in other leadership positions," Spence says. "They're much more likely to rise in such organizations and be paid the same as men."

- Setting aside doubts. "Some women have this deep-seated fear that they're not good enough to lead," Kaputa says. "They have this collaborative style that makes them become servant leaders. But they need to just lead. They need to stick their hand up, volunteer to do things and take on leadership roles. They need to see themselves as leaders."

Both Spence and Kaputa agree that besides the strong communication and collaborations skills women bring to the table, they may be in the best position to attract the younger talent needed in the coming years to remain competitive.

For example, studies say young workers often want more flexibility in their work life, as they seek to have a better balance of work/life issues. They also believe in more collaboration, better communication about what an organization is doing and want access to more opportunities.

"Young people are demanding all these things, and women are the ones who want these same things and have dealt with these issues," Spence says. "Businesses can't afford not to move women to the top."

Anita Bruzzese is author of "45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy ... and How to Avoid Them" (www.45things.com). Write to her c/o: Gannett ContentOne, 7950 Jones Branch Dr., McLean, VA 22107. For a reply, include a SASE.

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