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Women’s leadership: what really works in a gender-biased world

Nov 16 2014

Autumn may be a time for nature to begin winding down the year, but for many businesses and academic institutions, it represents a resurgence of activity after the summer holidays. Industry gatherings and networking events abound, offering opportunities to help propel careers forward. What better time to reevaluate the position of women in the workplace. Women have made great strides, but according to statistics, still lag behind men significantly when it comes to achieving positions of leadership and power. How can women best position themselves to succeed at the top?

To answer that question, Stanford Professional Women invited mother-daughter team Mary and Susie Cranston to speak at their October kick-off meeting. Their credentials speak well of their own success in business leadership. Mary is the retired chair emeritus of international law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, and a current board member of VISA, Juniper Networks, International Rectifier, Stanford University Packard Children’s Hospital, and Catalyst. She has been named one of “The 100 Most Influential Lawyers in America” by the National Law Journal, and one of the two “Best Law Firm Leaders in the United States” by Of Counsel.

Daughter Susie is a senior vice president with First Republic and has also spent 12 years at McKinsey & Company. She has authored several published articles and co-authored a book on women and leadership, How Remarkable Women Lead, which served as the source material for the evening’s discussion.

How Remarkable Women Lead is based on five years of proprietary research and hundreds of interviews focused on the cause of the glass ceiling and what really works to transcend gender stereotypes. Sharing personal anecdotes and insights from their own careers, Mary and Susie offered practical advice and guidance to help women deal with the unconscious stereotypes and career issues that hold them back.

For Mary and Susie, women can learn to draw from their personal strengths to overcome gender bias in the workplace by combining five elements of successful “centered leadership:” meaning, framing, connecting, energizing and engaging.

1. Meaning. Expectations can differ for men and women when in comes to motivations. It is perceived that for women, a sense of purpose, the quality of business relationships and the “product” they represent matter most. For men, it's perceived that pay and status matter more. Statistically, 40% of a woman’s job satisfaction hinges on how meaningful she finds that job. When women are engaged in work they truly believe in, they are far more likely to sustain the positive attitude, energy and creativity that will lead them to succeed. While this profile may not fit all men and women, it's important to understand your own motivations and find meaning in your work.

2. Framing. The way we choose to interpret things can shape their outcome. How permanent, pervasive, or personal we see a situation often determines our openness to adapt and to implement solutions, both qualities of successful leadership. To become more effective as great leaders, women must view situations clearly, and in a positive light.

3. Connecting. Today’s electronic communications and social media make connecting easy. Yet, when it comes to business connections, women’s networking tends to run narrow, but deep. For men, networking is broad, but shallow. Successful women leaders develop meaningful networks and understand the importance of finding and being a sponsor or mentor.

4. Energizing. Energy management is one of the tops skills for successful leaders. Traditionally, there are more expectations for women to shoulder the majority of family and community responsibilities, with tremendous demands on their time and energy. One way to manage those demands is to pay attention to what energizes and what depletes your energy. Mary and Susie counseled women to maximize those things that energize them, and minimize those that deplete them. What energizes you won’t destroy you, so you will be less likely burn out. While it’s impossible to completely avoid tasks that deplete energy, Mary shared a personal trick: alternate energizers and depleters to maintain balance. 

5. Engaging. Mary and Susie encouraged women to speak up, ask for what they want, and be thoughtful in asking for it. Implied in that recommendation is the willingness to take risks and to own a “voice.” Women need to project confidence and demonstrate that they understand networking, the value of speaking up, clear goals and staying energized.

The Q&A session following Mary and Susie’s talk gave the pair the opportunity to broaden the conversation on what needs to change. Encouraging women to cultivate attributes of “centered leadership” is only half the equation. Achieving gender equality on a more systemic level especially in the workplace needs sponsorship from corporate advocates and the willingness of all stakeholders to change.

According to research done by Catalyst, one of the biggest deterrents to women in business is an unconscious bias that perpetuates the sterotype that women don’t have the same leadership potential as men. Men, women, and companies all need to recognize they carry this unconscious bias before anything can be done about it.

How can we get men more interested? Recognize that everyone has a sense of fairness, and capitalize on that.

In closing, Mary noted that women are sometimes reluctant to "trade on their friendships" by asking other women for career support, and we need to get over that to help each other achieve our goals.

These frameworks and strategies are one part of the larger conversation on gender bias. For more resources and tools that empower women and help minimize bias in our everday interactions, please see our Voice & Influence video series, developed by the Clayman Institute.


A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.