Women in business: advantages, challenges, and opportunities

With an increasing number of well-known organizations like IBM, General Motors, and Mondelēz International appointing female CEOs, the trend towards women in leadership positions seems to be on the rise. In fact, there are more women running Fortune 500 businesses today than at any point in the 63-year history of the Fortune 500.

However, when put in context, that’s still only 6.4% of these leading companies. And with recent high-profile stories revealing the BBC’s gender pay gap and tales of female entrepreneurs citing an imaginary male co-founder for credibility, it’s clear women’s inequality is still a big business problem.

We recently hosted a webinar with a panel of business women at different stages in their careers to discuss these issues. To hear their advice and learn from their own personal stories about combating gender stereotypes and championing the cause of women in the workplace, you can watch the webinar below. Or read on for an overview of the advantages, challenges, and opportunities for women in business in 2017.

Our webinar panel consisted of Tessa Misiaszek, Associate Dean at Hult and professor of international marketing and entrepreneurship on our Boston campus. Tessa comes to us with an incredible wealth of business experience, having served as the CEO of Empathetics, run a number of start-ups, and worked as a consultant for Korn/Ferry International. She was joined by current Hult student, Rosey Singh, who has worked in the banking industry for 10 years and is the current president and co-founder of the Gender Equality in Leadership Club on the San Francisco campus. Justine Stacey, an alumna of our MBA program, also joined. Before earning her MBA, Justine spent several years working as an advocate for women’s health and empowerment around the world as VP for Girl’s Globe. Now, Justine is a marketing strategy manager for a leading financial company.

Advantages of women in business

  1. A diverse workforce is an innovative workforce

Diversity—from gender diversity to culture, age, and race—has been shown to foster creativity and innovation. From PricewaterhouseCooper, to Disney and L’Oreal, organizations across industries are seeking to prioritize and benefit from a diverse and inclusive work environment.

Men and women will inevitably have different experiences and backgrounds, which shape their approach to business. Challenging each other and collaborating with people who think differently can breed creativity and promote the innovative ideas that push organizations forward.

“Even with the very best of intentions, we have a tendency to gravitate towards people who are like us. It takes a real leader to say ‘I need someone to challenge me.’ That challenge can spawn new creativity, innovation, and growth.”

– Tessa Misiaszek, Associate Dean, Hult International Business School

  1. Women excel at the soft skills needed for business leadership

While technical skill and knowledge are fundamental to career success, CEOs consistently cite soft skills as the most desirable professional attributes. Although characteristics like effective communication, empathy, and self-awareness are difficult to measure, they are highly valued and can make a real difference to the bottom line. Recent research has drawn a connection between strength of character and business performance—with CEOs who rank highly for attributes like compassion and integrity also enjoying a 9.35% return on assets over a two-year period.

Soft skills and emotional intelligence may prove a key competitive advantage for women in business. A 2016 study published by the global consulting firm Hay Group found that women outperform men in 11 of 12 key emotional intelligence competencies. These competencies included emotional self-awareness, empathy, conflict management, adaptability, and teamwork—all essential skills for effective leadership in the workplace

  1. Women represent huge economic power and offer important consumer insight

It’s been estimated that women contribute in excess of $20 trillion in consumer spending every year, representing a bigger growth market than China and India combined. Women also account for 85% of consumer purchases.

Despite this, only 11% of creative directors in advertising are women—up from just 3% in 2008. When Boston Consulting Group did a comprehensive study of the “female economy” it’s unsurprising that they found women feel undervalued and underserved by the marketplace. With the power of the female consumer in mind, it’s evident that women are best placed to tap into that opportunity and bring valuable consumer insight to the table.

Tapping into the insight both men and women offer can make products and services more marketable and a business more profitable. In fact, recent research from McKinsey shows that gender-diverse businesses are 15% more likely to outperform financially above the industry median. 

Challenges for women in business

  1. Women are still underrepresented in key fields

While a number of industries are showing trends of a growing female workforce, sectors like financeengineering, and tech still tend to be strongly male-dominated. In STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) industries overall, women make up just 24% of the workforce in the U.S. and less than 15% in the U.K.

Women’s under representation could be down to the continued stereotype that an interest in “hard science” is unfeminine. But with STEM occupations projected to be among the fastest growing and best paid, it’s important that women feel empowered to gain the skills and embrace the opportunities afforded by a career in science, tech, and related fields. Organizations like the National Girls Collaborative Project and Girls Who Code are working to inspire women to pursue computer sciences and engineering and close the gender gap in STEM industries.

  1. Gender bias in the workplace

While most executives agree that the best person—regardless of gender—should get the job, the stories of women finding more success with a male or gender-neutral name on their CV demonstrates that unconscious bias still exists.

The women who are in or want to position themselves for leadership roles often feel they come under particular scrutiny. Where men may be encouraged to be ambitious or assertive, women are programed from a young age not to be “bossy”. Underlying gender bias means the same behavior and characteristics—initiative, passion, and taking charge—can be interpreted differently in men and women in the workplace.

  1. Women are less successful when it comes to salary negotiation

Women’s own reluctance ask for higher pay is often cited as a factor behind the gender pay gap. When Glassdoor did a recent survey on salary negotiation, it found that 68% of women accepted the salary they were offered, while nearly half of the men surveyed negotiated before accepting a role. It also revealed that when women did try to negotiate their starting salary, the outcome was generally less favorable.

Challenging the notion that women don’t ask for raises, a 2016 study from Cass Business School, the University of Warwick, and the University of Wisconsin, found that women are equally as likely as men to ask for a wage increase. But they’re also 25% less likely to get one.

It’s almost an accepted truth that men have a better sense of self-belief when positioning themselves for leadership roles or negotiating pay. Even highly successful women suffer from “imposter syndrome”, feeling inadequate and underestimating their worth. Women believing in their own value and demanding a salary that reflects it is an important step in closing the wage gap, while greater pay transparency can also help to level the playing field.

“Start the process today of understanding that, really, nothing is off limits for you. You can learn any skill. You can speak to anyone. Everything is within your ability. Nourish this growth mindset—that will make you successful in your MBA and applies right into the workforce.”

– Rosey Singh, Hult MBA Class of 2017

Opportunities for women in business

  1. Gender equality and inclusivity becoming policy

For many of forward-thinking organizations, gender equality is becoming a matter of policy, whether it’s committing to equal representation of women in the boardroom or hiring diversity officers.

Discouraging and circumventing bias through hiring policy can help organizations to reap the benefits of balance and equality. Rather than political correctness or buzzwords, if diversity, inclusiveness, and gender equality become policy and are embedded in business strategy, businesses thrive.

Making a commitment to things like equitable gender representation, inclusive company culture, and work-life balance—including maternity and paternity benefits—also help organizations to attract top talent. These are a few reasons why companies like Salesforce, General Electric, and Deloitte are cited as excellent places for both women and men to work.

  1. Entrepreneurship as the path to leadership

For a growing number of women, the fastest route to the c-suite is launching their own business. In the United States, the number women-owned businesses have increased 74% over the past 20 years—1.5 times the national average. Today’s start-up culture empowers women to be their own boss and pay their own salary, defining how they want to work and making the balance of career and family life easier. Entrepreneurship presents a path for women to close the pay gap and rise to leadership positions, on their own terms.

Running their own company also offers the opportunity for women to collaborate with and hire other ambitious, like-minded women, fostering a new generation of women in leadership roles.

  1. Strengthening credentials with a business degree

To stand out in a competitive job market, many women hone the knowledge and expertise they need through a business degree. The number of women enrolling in business school is steadily on the rise. Whether it’s undergraduate study, an MBAEMBA, or Masters degree, business school offers a valuable platform for women to become subject-matter experts, practice leadership skills, and gain the confidence they need to step into the boardroom.

Business school is also an invaluable networking opportunity and a chance to meet mentors in fellow students, professors, and campus speakers. A mentor can offer industry advice and serve as a sounding board for new ideas. Mentors can also become important career sponsors, offering professional opportunities and helping ambitious and talented women to take their next step up the career ladder.

“The biggest thing I left my MBA with, beyond the hard skills, was this better sense of confidence in myself. Business school was so much more than learning about finance and accounting. It can be intimidating when you’re one of the only women in the room at a work meeting. I have a lot more confidence when I’m in those situations now.”

– Justine Stacey, Hult MBA Class of 2016

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