How Women Leaders Improve Innovation & Business Success

“I would suggest that if you are a woman raising capital, you might consider not including photos of your team in your pitch deck.  In your LinkedIn profile, Twitter account, email address and online correspondence use your initials and eliminate photos,” – John Greathouse, The Wall Street Journal December 15, 2016.


The author, John Greathouse, apologized on Twitter for writing the above and for unintentionally asking women to endure gender bias. Of course women hiding their sex is certainly not the solution to gender equality, but what Greathouse brings to light is that unfounded biases are still strongly interfering with qualified women being successful in business today.

According to Renee Rottner, Assistant Professor, at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Technology Management Program, “Gender-bias limits us whether we are investors, employers or educators. In studies that reveal gender, but keep the content the same – the same venture pitch, the same resume, the same online course material – women are perceived as less competent than men, even though their performance was identical.”  


Women in Iceland protest pay gap by leaving work early.

Women in Iceland protest pay gap by leaving work early.

Gender equality is defined as when women and men enjoy the same rights and opportunities across all sectors of society, including economic participation and decision making, and when the different behaviors, aspirations and needs of women and men are equally valued and favored (source). If you think that we are making ground in gender equality, you may be surprised to learn that in 2006, the average female IT worker made 81% of the average male IT salary but by 2015 the rate decreased to 78% of the average male IT salary for doing the same job (source). At the rate we are ‘improving’, it wouldn’t be until 2152 that women have equal pay (source).

So here we are in 2017 with women finding themselves without the same opportunities as their male counterpart, and this is bad news for business and innovation. For this week's Priya post we take a moment to address this problem and celebrate women leaders pushing innovation forward. 


“Fewer large companies are run by women than by men named John,” -NYT


We live in a world where male leadership teams are making the final decisions on ideas, products, promotions, talent and investments. Only 14.2% of the top five leadership positions in the S&P 500 are held by women (source). With so few women executives having in-line or operational executive positions, women aren’t making decisions about the products themselves, or the advertising strategies behind them (source).   

While we are far more alike than different, men and women undeniably experience life in ways that only being of the same sex could fully understand. Women do not experience shaving their face daily and men do not experience bra fittings.  When we relate to experiences, we tend to gravitate towards those we are familiar with, a phenomenon referred to as the Mere-Exposure Effect.  This happens to us all and whether we do it consciously or not, it’s human nature to select and prefer people, places, and ideas that are familiar to us. Which is why, in addition to gender biases, Harvard Business Review found that women working for male dominated teams were significantly less likely than men to win endorsement for their ideas.

This is a perilous scenario for advances in women’s healthcare. Men will naturally select and fund ideas that they relate to and bypass qualified leaders due to biases of which they may or may not be conscious. In the healthcare industry, where 75% of the staff are women, only 19% make up the hospital CEOs and none are chief executives of Fortune 500 healthcare companies (source). What ideas are are not being supported and funded due to this massive imbalance? Fortunately, in health research, a team of women lawyers and women in congress took a stance and put laws in place to combat gender inequalities.

Due to their efforts, laws were put in place to bring more women into research, more funding for their ideas, and for women to be included in more clinical studies. If it wasn't for these women putting these laws in place, we would not have seen such advances in healthcare including a treatment for osteoporosis, a better diagnosis for heart disease and ovarian cancer, and a reduction in breast cancer cases. These breakthrough treatments were born out of attention being brought to gender equality in research. Imagine the innovation that would occur with gender equality in the business world.   


“The evidence on women in the C-suite is robust: no matter how we torture the data we get the same result: women in the C-suite are associated with higher profitability,” -Marcus Noland, the Peterson Institute.


Women represent the most powerful consumers on the planet. They make up for 85% of all product purchases. If we consider the Mere-Exposure Effect alone, it should come to no surprise that when a company goes from 0% women in leadership roles to 30% women in the senior ranks, company's increase in profitability (source). The marketing strategies alone benefit immensely from having women in key leadership roles. As author Jillian Berman points out, having a male-led team for tampons “translated into ads featuring blue liquids dumped on sanitary napkins, and portraying ecstatic women clad in all-white dancing and frolicking, apparently while menstruating. That’s a scenario approximately no woman has ever related to” (source).

According to the noted McKinsey study, not having mixed gender leadership teams cost “companies crucial market opportunities, because inherently diverse contributors understand the unmet needs in under-leveraged markets” (source). In fact, the study found that companies with the highest gender diversity have a stronger stock price growth by 70% and having at least one woman on the board decreased bankruptcy by a full 20%.  

Companies that make an effort to have both sexes on the leadership team provide themselves with invaluable insight and decision making that is only possible with the input from both sides. Having women in the C-Suite with the power to make top-level decisions will push for innovation and ideas that their male counterpart may either not select or would miss entirely.


“Once we accept that we all have these biases, then we are in a position to fix the problem.”- Renee Rottner, UC Santa Barbara


We have a significant amount of work to endure to find ways to dissipate the unfounded biases that remain in the workplace. Many of us are not even conscious of the biases we carry and they are carried by both men and women alike. Medical doctor and the founder and CEO of Parsley Health, Robin Berzin, was running a business with $1M in revenue when she went out to raise a series A round. Two VCs, one male and one female, questioned her desire to grow the company into a ‘real company versus a ‘lifestyle’ business. They said they were concerned about investing in her business because she was the age to start a family. Parsley wrote, “ A man in my position—that is a Columbia University-trained MD and a serial entrepreneur who's already proved traction and success—would never have encountered this fear from investors.”


Dr. Lauren Costantini winning a pitch competition. 

Dr. Lauren Costantini winning a pitch competition. 

Role models like powerhouse and CEO of Prima-Temp, Dr. Lauren Costantini, will help to pave the way for more women leaders. Dr. Costantini has risen through the ranks of academia at Harvard Medical School and today, as CEO of Prima-Temp, she has raised 3 rounds of funding, and can be found giving keynote lectures at top medical and technology conferences. Yet, as Alene Campbell, Head of Corporate Development for Prima-Temp, points out, women are up against a cultural infrastructure that makes it more difficult for women to balance work and family.  

The success of progressive countries having more women leaders can be attributed to solving the ‘family issue’ for women, but perhaps not in the way you would expect. Countries that provide mandated maternity leave do not have more female leaders. But those with more paternity leave do. “It stands to reason that policies that allow for child care need to be met, but do not place the burden of this care explicitly on the woman, can allow women to have a greater chance of building business acumen and professional contacts necessary to advance to a level at which they would be invited to be part of a corporate board,” the study said (source).

Dr. Costantini looks forward to the day when women can talk about themselves as ‘executives’ instead of ‘female executives.’ Campbell, who has managed to have 4 successful exits and has been in C-level positions for over 30 years, all while raising 3 children (including twins), attributes part of her success to working with progressive male leaders and having a supportive spouse. We need more progressive leaders and workplaces to confront the biases as well as create a culture that promotes gender equity. With a more balanced ratio of men and women making top level decisions, businesses will be more successful, biases that impede equality and success will dissolve, and more innovation will be born, including innovation that saves lives.

Let’s all start making a difference today. Please share this post and tag a role model leading the way, whether she leads a company big or small, has great ideas, is a man who supports women in leadership and equality or is a progressive company making a difference today.


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