When Women Lead: What They Achieve, Why They Succeed
“When you grow up, everything will be different.”
I still remember my mother saying that when I was thirteen years old, squeezed between friends in the back seat of afternoon carpool. We had just heard Gloria Steinem speak at our school’s annual women’s history speaker series. It was an experience my mother saw as a rite of passage for me. She had marched against the Vietnam War and for civil rights, and proof of it sat on her desk: a photo of her younger self in a flower print minidress, flanked by her best friends holding picket signs. Drawn to the energy and potential in the women’s rights movement, she had heard Steinem speak in the 1970s.
“We marched so you wouldn’t have to,” she said. “My parents told me my only two choices were teacher and nurse.” (She chose teacher.) But now, she said, in this last decade of the millennium, opportunities would be unfolding before us. “You will be captains of industry! Women will be running companies! The halls of Congress will be full of women!” I rolled my eyes and looked out the window. Given the steady march toward progress, my mom’s enthusiasm felt pointless and even embarrassing. “CEO! Rocket scientist! Brain surgeon! Nothing will hold you back!” she continued. Of course, Mom. I know.
Eight years later, on the sixteenth floor of the Time Warner building in midtown Manhattan, I realized we had both been wrong.
It was my first day working at Fortune magazine. I was one of the last people hired before the stock market crash of 2000. A twenty-one-year-old Princeton graduate with a degree in history, I didn’t have a single economics or accounting class on my transcript, but I had been an editor at The Daily Princetonian, and I came armed with writing samples from a class I’d taken with John McPhee. I also had done an assortment of internships at the White House and for the State Department’s delegation to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). I guess my new bosses figured I could learn how to analyze numbers, read SEC documents, and examine financial results. It was an assumption that was both refreshing (no outmoded stereotypes about girls and math here!) and also a little daunting (what’s an S-1 again?).
That morning, a supervisor invited me into her office for an informal orientation, mainly to review corporate policies on expense accounts and explain the guidelines for pitching stories. “Oh, and your timing is so lucky,” she added as we were wrapping up. “There was just a big sexual harassment settlement at Time Inc., so everyone”—she waved to the corridor of male editors—“will be on their best behavior.”
I was stunned. That was 2000—long before the #MeToo era and broad recognition that the combination of lopsided workplace power dynamics and anything sexual could be toxic. Even the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which had broken into public view during my White House internship, had been viewed by many people (me included) as more a tawdry sex scandal than abusive workplace behavior. My reporter instincts had me itching to ask questions about the settlement, but they were questions I suddenly didn’t feel comfortable asking. What kind of sexual harassment? What does “big settlement” even mean? Was it a victory that the men in this office would be slightly more nervous about—about doing what, exactly?
As I walked out of her office, past the warren of dark reporter cubbyholes, I saw the true male/female 50/50 split that I’d been accustomed to in high school and college. As I turned the corner to the row of midcareer writers, the men outnumbered the women, but not by much. Then I got to the rows of senior editors’ offices. There was one belonging to the legendary female editor-at-large Carol Loomis. But the vast majority of senior editors were men. I considered the power ratio.
Later, when I asked an older female writer about the sexual harassment situation, she gave me no details. Instead, she advised me to follow a “Men-minus-two” rule: stay two drinks behind the male editors at postwork happy hours. “Never accuse anyone of sexual harassment,” she warned. “Unless you’re guaranteed to make enough money from the settlement that you’ll never have to work again.” To her it was an obvious statement of fact—that kind of accusation would make one unhirable. She was just being practical. But for me, it was a giant crack in the monolithic wall of confidence that my mother had built for me about my opportunities in an equitable world.
That was just the beginning. A few months later, during one interview, a mutual fund manager scoffed when I pressed him on his declining returns: How could such a “young woman” like me possibly have any informed questions about the subject? On another occasion, when Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and his senior executive team swept into the conference room for a cover story I was helping report, they asked me to get them coffee, assuming that I was a secretary. When I reported a story about twenty CEOs whose net worth had declined by more than $1 billion during the stock market downturn—all of them happened to be men—I received angry phone calls and emails from a number of them, questioning my math and accusing me of not understanding their businesses. The rule, rather than the exception, was for men to either sneer at or leer at young women like me.
While doing interviews with CEOs, analysts, and fund managers, I learned to expect a low simmer of condescension. I protected myself by donning an armor of boxy suits and chunky glasses (which I didn’t really need). I decided I would be taken more seriously if I never discussed my personal life. I tried to minimize my natural girliness and turned myself into a financial reporting utility, studying S-1 IPO filings, annual reports, and analyst notes. I created a work identity: overprepared and calm. When an inappropriate comment made its way to me, I kept a guarded, neutral half smile on my face. Unlike my male peers, I didn’t linger at after-work happy hours (I always stayed Men-minus-two). That workplace identity wasn’t really me, but it worked for me.
One morning in 2003, my colleague Grainger David slumped into the chair next to my desk. Every day we traded professional strategies and intraoffice gossip, and he’d come to report on the tennis game he’d played with two senior editors the night before. If I were to run a gender workplace experiment, David would have made a perfect control set. He and I had graduated from Princeton together and started working at Fortune magazine within a few weeks of each other. Our academic backgrounds were remarkably similar (although he, unlike me, had taken Econ 101).
The tennis game, David told me, had led to cocktails and then to a larger discussion about his dream of covering the gold rush—the one in Mongolia. Sending a reporter and photographer abroad, especially somewhere like Mongolia, was an expensive investment for an atypical Fortune piece. Perhaps aided by his racquet skills, or the cocktails, he had convinced them, and it was happening.
What I saw was unconscious bias in action. The men who held the most power felt most comfortable hanging out with younger versions of themselves, which offered those young men exposure and opportunities for advancement. The hours David spent with our bosses on the court, or over bourbon, naturally led to comfort and kinship. That enabled him to informally explore what story angles and ideas might fit into the pages of Fortune (or which ones could be made to fit).
Though David’s advantage was one freely given to young male reporters, I had a different kind of advantage that was the product of pure luck. I had happened to join Fortune at a moment when then-editor at large, Andy Serwer, had taken on new responsibilities at the magazine and also at CNN. As the youngest reporter on staff, I had been assigned the new—and, for my peers, unique—job of assisting Serwer as he churned out a regular column, a daily newsletter, and cover stories, while managing his daily appearances on CNN.
As a result of my daily access to Serwer’s office, I had extraordinary visibility into the processes of a great reporter. Unlike my young female colleagues, I was the recipient of serendipitous mentorship by Serwer—with no tennis courts involved. And the fullest proof of my good fortune: Andy Serwer was, and remains, an exceedingly good guy.
What I learned by reporting for my mentor I channeled into my own pieces for the magazine. They included new takes on old, iconic companies such as Smucker’s and Wrigley. I wrote essays about viral marketing campaigns and profiles of big business personalities, from the retail impresario and then-CEO of J.Crew, Mickey Drexler, to Whole Foods Market founder John Mackey.
Occasionally, reporters like me were invited to appear on Fortune’s then-sibling company’s network, CNN, to discuss a business news story. About a year into my job at Fortune, I was asked by CNN to come on air to talk about an article I had written. It was my first experience on live TV, and by some miracle I didn’t get nervous. It turned out that the workplace alter ego I had been cultivating (overpreparedness and a half smile) was highly portable to live television. CNN invited me back, and after a few months of regular appearances, I became a contributor with a thrice-weekly segment on CNN Headline News bearing the ungainly name Street Talk with Julia Boorstin.
After five years of appearing regularly on CNN while writing for Fortune, I was offered a job as an on-air reporter at CNBC, so I decided to leave print magazines for TV business news. There was, of course, something fundamentally different about delivering my stories on live television, especially when bias crept into the dynamic.
A few weeks before my wedding in 2007, I was doing a live segment on CNBC with a short-lived anchor on the network when he decided I was too bullish on Netflix. After I reported a story on the company’s growth prospects, he fired at me with snide relish that my analysis was faulty and overly optimistic because my judgment was clouded. He said sarcastically, “You must be really happy in your personal life.” This older man was belittling my ability as a journalist, implying that my life as a woman was interfering with my ability to do my job. Why was the identity I thought I had left safely at home being dragged into my work? And why was my colleague using it on CNBC’s air to score points against me? The strange and random deployment of my “personal life” created a moment of cognitive dissonance for me: As soon as the words left my colleague’s lips, I flinched, causing my earpiece to fall out of my ear. As the years wore on, I developed the ability to quickly respond to such affronts (I never again accidentally popped out an earpiece during a segment). The anchor soon left the network, and the last time I checked, Netflix turned out okay.
More often, though, such offenses happened off camera. There was that time I was strolling into a high-level private event at the Consumer Electronics Show with a male CEO and another CEO asked me if we were having an affair. And there was another time that a source of mine, whom I considered a friend, told me over dinner that I would be far more successful if I “got a boob job.” Despite my saying clearly that the conversation was inappropriate, he spent the next forty-five minutes repeating and defending his argument before I could find a way to exit.
At first I struggled with that kind of objectification as an on-air personality. Had I brought this humiliation upon myself by choosing to report news in a medium that featured my appearance? Did that kind of invasion of my personal space come with the territory? The absurdity of the “boob job” comment was a turning point: I decided I loved my job too much to let that kind of stupid, painful interaction distract me.
I worked to ignore and forget those experiences and to focus on the freedom I had to pursue my interests at CNBC. I certainly wasn’t living in the egalitarian utopia my mom had hoped for me, but over the years that type of offense became far less common. As I moved through the world of TV business news, I found I was adapting to it—and thriving in it.
My bosses encouraged me to be entrepreneurial and create new franchises and series, and I was again lucky to learn from and collaborate with smart colleagues, especially some women around my age. And I loved interviewing acclaimed leaders such as the Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Iger and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and reporting on how they were transforming their companies and reinventing the business of entertainment.
Then, when I was thirty-three, I became pregnant with my first son. The protective “work identity” that I had so carefully cultivated was suddenly being colonized, and visibly so, by my personal one. Once I was “showing,” the number of offensive incidents rose in apparent proportion to my growing belly. There were comments about how it would be impossible to continue my TV career once I had children. Many men I interviewed rubbed my belly before they sat down to clip on a microphone. Some even remarked on my breasts. Like millions of women before me, I was annoyed and scared about how this new identity could impact my career momentum.
As my pregnancy progressed, I discovered that my professional success often hinged on my ability to not flinch when men said (or did) inappropriate or offensive things. Luckily, I’d had a decade of practice. It turned out that playing the “role” of a twenty-one-year-old cub reporter in boxy blazers and Clark Kent glasses had been a protracted dress rehearsal for the big show—the gendered treatment that too often comes with pregnancy. So how long are you going to keep doing this? You won’t ever see your kids with your hours—you’ll want to stay home. Those comments could have felt like kryptonite, but with plenty of practice I developed a kind of force field. The barbs revealed everything about the biases of those men, I realized, and nothing about me. If some men felt so weird being interviewed by a woman with a giant pregnant belly that they felt compelled to make a comment, it was their problem, not mine.
Then there was maternity leave. After years of the breakneck pace of daily live television, I was suddenly away from my job for three solid months, completely unplugged and totally focused on my baby. I was surprised that I loved every minute of it. When my maternity leave was over, I packed up my breast pump and ice packs and squeezed into Spanx. I didn’t know what to expect. Would my career still be there when I returned? In the same place where I had left it? And how would I feel about my work and that mythical work-life balance I’d heard so much about?
As it turned out, my career was still there and in roughly the same condition. But now, of course, there was a new, adorable demand on my time waiting for me when I got home every day. And a strange thing happened: however sleep deprived I was, it became something of a comfort to know that whatever small indignities befell the workplace “Julia Boorstin,” there was another identity I could retreat to back at home. My growing family was now the most important thing in my life, so I wasn’t as intimidated by my bosses or my interview subjects. Those stakes felt smaller in comparison. The minutiae didn’t distract me and stress me out as much because I felt at my core that they were not as important as all the baby milestones and stuffy noses I worried about and relished. With my new priorities and time constraints, I focused my attention at work on the most important things. And so even with the new pressures of motherhood, my first year back from maternity leave was my most productive at CNBC to date: I reported a documentary on the future of television and started creating CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list of startups.
Instead of feeling like the fact that I was a woman was something that I needed to overcome, it became a kind of superpower that gave me perspective and bolstered me in the most challenging situations.
As my self-perception changed, the world around me seemed to as well. More women were ascending to senior positions and occasionally reaching the typically male C-suite. A cultural inflection point came with the 2013 publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. The book and the nonprofit built on its ideals sought to demystify the challenges of female corporate leadership and destigmatize accommodations that corporations could make for female employees—and encourage companies to make those accomodations. Sandberg represented a new kind of role model—both aggressive and feminine—and she started a conversation. The book provoked backlash for seeming most useful to white women in positions of privilege. But for me—and I was certainly in a position of privilege—it inspired a renewed commitment to actively seize professional opportunities.
In the years after I found my confidence as a working mom, I began to see more women around my age come into leadership roles, and I had a chance to interview some of them for CNBC. In addition to the slow rise of female corporate executives, I watched a proliferation of female entrepreneurs pursuing their passions. Over the course of countless interviews, I was struck by a unique approach to leadership many of these women were taking. I saw them solving problems and creating products they wanted or needed that didn’t yet exist. They were finding opportunities in arenas that men had overlooked. From Bumble, which inverted the power dynamics of online dating, to the biotech company LanzaTech, which turns pollution into fuel, women were creating and leading some of the most disruptive and innovative businesses I covered for CNBC.
I also felt the result of all that slow progress in the workplaces I visited. In the corridors of corporations large and small, I found more breast-pumping rooms. At conferences I saw panels expanded to include more than a single, token woman. Even late-night tech conference poker games started to include female participants—not just female cocktail waitresses. While I was writing this book, Fortune magazine named its first female editor-in-chief. The pace of change was slow, and the path to gender equity is a very long one. But I increasingly noticed a range of women speaking up about the pressures, the obstacles, and the double standards—and succeeding despite all of those things.
To thrive against the odds, those women had to be remarkable. That’s why I’ve devoted a book to telling their stories. By definition, they’re exceptional.
One thing that has consistently impressed me most over my past twenty-odd years of business reporting is the way female leaders have been able to turn genuine grievance into entrepreneurial grit. I have been struck by how women have had to be far more scrappy, flexible, thick skinned, and innovative—and how the companies they have built have also taken on those characteristics. Women such as Sallie Krawcheck, CEO of the female-focused investing company Ellevest, who was ignominiously fired from one of the most powerful perches in finance. Or Shivani Siroya, who created Tala, a system for providing microloans to people in emerging markets who couldn’t borrow money from banks. Or Aileen Lee, who cofounded the nonprofit All Raise to help women rise in the male-dominated VC world. Those women looked around and said, “Enough. I am going to start something new, and I’m going to do it myself.” This is hardly the first wave of powerful female entrepreneurs—Estée Lauder founded her makeup line in 1946, Mrs. Fields Cookies was founded by Debbi Fields in 1977, Sara Blakely invented Spanx in 2000, Arianna Huffington launched the Huffington Post in 2005, and Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart have been at it for decades. But now a new breed of founder is taking the baton and formulating novel approaches to a wide range of industries.
In May 2019, I interviewed Rent the Runway founder and CEO Jennifer Hyman when her company had just been named number five on CNBC’s Disruptor 50 list, which ranks fast-growing private companies that are challenging established industries. Hyman was nine months pregnant and was visiting the company’s warehouse in New Jersey for the last time before her maternity leave. She ran through her plan: she would take four months off after giving birth, and during that time, the company’s executive ranks would manage the launch of a new distribution center—without her. Sitting in the middle of Rent the Runway’s dry-cleaning operations, plastic-sheathed dresses flying around us, I asked a routine question about whether recent IPO flops made her concerned about her company’s own chances in the public markets. Hyman smiled, narrowed her eyes, and proceeded to dismantle the premise of my question. Those companies’ challenges and balance sheets, she explained, were very different from hers. “As a female CEO, I haven’t been given the permission, or the privilege, to lose a billion every quarter.”
Hyman’s umbrage, like her business cred, is well earned. In fact, female founders consistently draw less than 3 percent of all venture capital dollars, and it is VC funding that enabled companies such as Facebook, Google, and Airbnb to spend years losing money while growing.1 (This is part of a broader lack of female representation in leadership across business: women comprised 8.8% of CEOs of the Fortune 500 as of May 2022, and represented just 24 percent of all roles in the C-suite, companies’ most senior group of managers, as of 2021.)2
When those few female entrepreneurs do successfully raise venture funding, they generally raise less than half as much as their male counterparts. Indeed, the pressure of not being able to raise as much money as her male peers made Hyman focus not on driving growth—in order to cash in on the company with a sale or an IPO—but rather on operations. The condescension and gender bias she’d faced from venture capital investors had made her persistent and creative and taught her to do more with less. Now she felt empowered to shape the culture of the company she had cocreated so she could take maternity leave while her deep bench of (female) C-suite executives filled in.
It’s not just that women are especially outnumbered in the world of startups; there’s another reason why I’m interested in tech-driven companies such as The RealReal, a digital luxury consignment platform; Spring Health, a mental health care service for companies; and Insurify, an insurance comparison shopping platform. For the past thirty years, the technology industry has had more impact than any other sector on both business and society. It has encoded massive changes into the culture, transforming the way we communicate, work, travel, learn, and play. It has also produced tools—from Amazon Web Services to Dropbox to Slack—that are lowering the barriers to entry for new entrepreneurs, both male and female.
Tech entrepreneurs have an opportunity to turn a crazy idea into a game-changing institution when given the powerful boost of venture capital. It is from investments made by venture capital funds—some canny bets on a growing industry, some wild moonshots on industries that don’t exist yet—that so much tech innovation emanates. That is the reason I am choosing to focus this book on the startup world. Because of the broad impact of tech companies, the headwinds faced by female tech entrepreneurs are particularly meaningful. With less access to venture capital, female founders face more barriers to building companies that could have a massive effect on the world.
I saw just how high the stakes can be for startups—companies such as Google and Uber influence how we live, work, and spend money—or they create new consumer sectors, as Rent the Runway and Airbnb have. Plus, through my reporting I understood how hard it can be for women to succeed in the powerful world of tech. But I didn’t want this book to be a polemic against inequitable systems. Instead, I wanted to understand how some women had been able to become exceptions. I wanted to know how they had done it—and what we can all learn from them.
When I started reporting this book in early 2020, I flew up to Silicon Valley and interviewed more than a dozen venture capital investors about the female founders they’d backed. I heard stories about the resilience the women had demonstrated, how they’d managed to scale their companies despite fewer resources, and the obstacles they’d faced. I started calling up those female founders to ask about their fundraising challenges, what tactics they had used to scale disruptive ideas, and how they had managed to succeed against the odds.
On the afternoon of March 10, 2020, I was on my way to interview one of them, Beautycounter founder and then-CEO Gregg Renfrew, when I pulled over to read an urgent text from my children’s elementary school: classes would be canceled for the foreseeable future due to covid-19. I finished the drive to Beautycounter’s headquarters in Santa Monica and, feeling winded by the news, sat in the lobby, full of sleek glass bottles encasing the company’s clean skin care and makeup lines. I looked at the notebook in my lap, full of questions that I had prepared weeks earlier. I’d been reading the reports that the World Health Organization was about to qualify covid-19 a global pandemic, and now it felt as though those scribbles were from another lifetime, on topics that were suddenly inconsequential.
As Renfrew greeted me in her airy office, with giant photos of her three children on the wall and a potted plant arching over her desk, I had the terrifying feeling that she would be the last person I would interview in person for a very long time. She immediately apologized for having pushed our meeting back. The company, she explained, had been in triage mode as it prepared for the total disintegration of its in-person business.
When we settled into the interview, Renfrew explained that the biggest challenge in her career wasn’t when she’d pitched to VCs to raise money. It wasn’t when she’d testified before Congress on the need for cosmetic safety regulations. It wasn’t even the time she decided to discard a whole new line of products when they failed to live up to her company’s high safety standards. Her toughest management decision, at that point, had been how to handle canceling the company’s annual conference, which had been scheduled for the previous week in San Francisco. The top two thousand of the company’s fifty thousand marketing consultants—the vast majority of them female—had planned to fly in to learn about the company’s commitment to safe ingredients and to try its serums, sunscreens, and lipsticks in person.
Understandably, she feared what canceling might represent: the economy frozen, the inability to gather women in living rooms, where they could try—and buy—her products. She feared that there would be prolonged retail closures just as she was adding brick-and-mortar locations to her virtual business model. She feared that with the stock market in free fall, consumers’ priorities would naturally shift away from beauty products.
But even then, Renfrew was thinking about how to adapt in the short term: creating online environments to train Beautycounter consultants and market new products to consumers. She also talked about the long-term stakes—not just returning a profit to her investors but keeping the business functioning at scale and those fifty thousand women earning an income. “Somebody’s got to make these tough calls. As a leader I’m always having to make tough decisions,” she said. “You’re expected to be in high growth mode all the time, you’re expected to meet the ever-changing demands of the consumer, and you’re expected to be profitable simultaneously. All those things are really challenging to do.” And now she was going to try to do those things in the midst of what was about to become a global pandemic.
After we concluded our interview, I drove away from the office on an eerily empty freeway, wondering if the quiet at rush hour was the opening scene of a world-changing story. The entire economy was about to come to a screeching halt. The following two weeks would see 10 million Americans file for jobless benefits, nearly the same number of people who had lost their jobs over the two-year-long recession of 2008–2009.3
I felt as though I were watching a weird economic experiment. Here I was, researching a book about the degree to which female entrepreneurs are more adaptable, versatile, cool-headed in their risk taking, and able to do more with less. Suddenly all those qualities would be put to the most extreme test that the global economy had faced since World War II.
Profiling successful female entrepreneurs such as Gregg Renfrew and enumerating their personal and professional qualities seemed like more than enough material for a book. As I conducted interviews, though, I realized that I needed better tools to understand their successes. So while I was interviewing these incredible women, I also searched for data and research that could help me categorize their approaches and understand why they had worked. Then I wanted to identify if these particular characteristics were more likely to be demonstrated by women. The stories I was hearing intersected with the research I was reading when I found studies that elucidated leaders’ tactics or when I noticed a quality in a CEO whom I had read about in an academic paper. It was the intersection of personal narratives and research that gave me a full understanding—not just of the special quality of a particular entrepreneur but of the broader lessons to be learned from her example.
In other words, the research helped me take atypical, seemingly inimitable women leaders and understand them as new, imitable archetypes.
It is the synthesis of these biographical stories and academic research that I hope will bring a new set of archetypes to life. They don’t look or behave like the commonly held images of corporate America’s suits (the imperious salt-and-pepper patriarch) or Silicon Valley’s hoodies (the move-fast-and-break-things tech bro). These women possess such extraordinary characteristics that they are able to defy the odds and grow companies—and those companies tend to add value to both industry and society.
In the research and personal stories, I’ve found that women’s strengths have often been overlooked or simply not associated with great leadership. There are a range of qualities I’ve found that women tend to possess that correlate with great leadership. They have a tendency to be more considerate of data in their risk assessment. They are also more likely to include varied perspectives in decision making and as a result are better at empathizing with both colleagues and customers. They often lead with vulnerability, a willingness to ignore expectations and to do things their own way. I found that these women frequently focus on achieving a greater purpose beyond profits, and are more likely to pursue social and environmental goals with a heightened sense of gratitude for their access and opportunity. Their approaches may have been overlooked, undervalued, or not associated with leadership for the simple reason that it is women who most often exhibit them.
To many women, the enumeration of sexist and misogynistic biases can seem thuddingly obvious and pointlessly demoralizing. My intention in highlighting inspirational stories and the characteristics women deploy is to be positive and forward looking. (My use of the terms woman and female is inclusive of anyone who identifies as that gender.)
My hope is that the strategies highlighted here can be a resource for anyone, of any gender, who is looking for modes of succeeding in business. I think those practical takeaways are possible, because I found them myself. In reporting this book I wasn’t just testing hypotheses about female entrepreneurs—I was learning how to better navigate the world.
In the winter of 2020, the darkest period of the pandemic, I was lucky to be healthy and working from home, broadcasting on CNBC just feet away from my Zoom-schooled kids. I felt particularly grateful given the horrifying headlines about how women were most affected by the pandemic. Women were more likely to be laid off and quit in record numbers as they struggled to manage their children’s online schooling and protect their family’s health. During that time, I happened also to be poring over research on female leaders, who, even in nonpandemic circumstances, are subjected to an added set of stressors. As I made my way through dozens of academic studies, I found myself stuck on a particular pile of reports that detailed all the different ways women in business were judged more harshly. I struggled to figure out how I could organize that demoralizing research into a positive, practical framework. It all felt overwhelming and depressing.
But then I saw a use for all those data in my own professional life, when on CNBC on December 8, 2020, I interviewed Ann Sarnoff, who was then the CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group. Warner Brothers had just made the controversial decision to release its next eighteen movies simultaneously on the company’s HBO Max streaming platform and in theaters—without warning the filmmakers and actors, whose paydays, which were normally driven by theatrical box office revenues, would be affected. I asked Sarnoff to respond to the criticisms of the filmmaker Christopher Nolan and other Hollywood names and inquired about concessions the company would have to give to theater chains in order to simultaneously release films on HBO Max. I pressed her when she evaded questions.
After the interview, a PR executive called. “I thought you were kind of mean in that interview with Ann,” he told me. “I mean, your tone just felt really harsh.”
Umbrage from PR flacks is a professional hazard of business reporting, but it can be harrowing because this kind of opprobrium often comes with a threat—implicit or explicit—of blocked access to an entire organization. (In TV reporting, executives’ on-air participation is valuable currency.) My general strategy in these kinds of situations had always been to take a warm and upbeat tone and defuse the tension with a comment about what a great opportunity it was to address the headlines. Occasionally I would review a tape with colleagues and ask whether, in fact, I had pushed too hard. After more than twenty years at this, I know my stuff. And even when I’m tough, I think I’m fair. Executives continue to return my phone calls. The earth continues to spin.
But when it came to that particular call and that particular comment, I had all that research thrumming through my head. At that moment, one study conducted by my old employer, Fortune magazine, was particularly vivid. Called “The Abrasiveness Trap: High-Achieving Men and Women Are Described Differently in Reviews,” it detailed the way women tend to be judged for their style and personality, whereas men are judged for their performance.4 So when the PR exec told me I had been “mean,” I heard that word in a way I hadn’t before. “That’s odd,” I replied. “I thought I was incredibly fair.” Then I blurted out, “Would you have given the same critique to one of my male colleagues?” There was an awkward silence. Then he said something surprising.
“Well, maybe I would expect it of him. I don’t know.” He sounded more reflective than chastened. “I’ll think about it.” Maybe he was admitting that I had a point. Or maybe I had scared him a little. Or maybe it was a bit of both.
In any case, it was empowering: I wasn’t crazy for perceiving bias. The knowledge I had gained in my research helped me distinguish fair criticism about my performance from unfair criticism relating to my gender. In that moment, I could understand the word “mean” for what it was: a discomfort with my “unfeminine” tone rather than a genuine criticism of my performance. What was particularly interesting to me is that Sarnoff herself hadn’t seemed to notice anything out of the ordinary. We emailed after the interview, and she later volunteered to join me for a fireside chat for a group of women executives in the entertainment industry. The following year she invited me to interview her on the Warner Brothers lot about the studio’s postpandemic plans. At issue wasn’t the reality of the exchange between two professional women on CNBC’s air; at issue was a man’s perception of that exchange.
As I conducted more research and interviews, I realized that although the data about ways in which women are judged more harshly can be discouraging, they can also be a valuable tool to empower women. Defining the shapes of an obstacle can naturally help you circumnavigate it. Understanding how leaders have handled tough situations and the science behind their strategies will, I hope, help others find ways to thrive in the face of adverse conditions.
Nearly two years after my first encounter with Gregg Renfrew, she was one of the last women I checked in with before this book went to print. Beautycounter was thriving. In the face of the adverse conditions of the pandemic, she had indeed figured out how to navigate the unforeseen challenges. In the year after our meeting, she had gone on what she called a listening tour, talking to more than a thousand of her consultants and customers. “In the absence of being able to physically gather to give someone a hug or just feel that energy, I just reached out and talked to people,” she said. And conversations on Zoom, where anyone could raise a virtual hand, she said ended up feeling more intimate and effective than gathering hundreds of people in a room.
Despite her fears that afternoon in March 2020, in the following eighteen months the company introduced a range of new products that won awards, launched a new interactive shopping show on streaming video, and grew its ranks of sellers from fifty thousand to sixty-five thousand. “We’ve been able to anticipate and also focus on riding the wave of people caring about the health of their bodies and the health of the world,” she said. The company revamped its packaging to be more environmentally friendly and introduced new cosmetics just in time for fresh demand for makeup. In April 2021, Beautycounter sold a majority stake to the Carlyle Group at a $1B valuation. (In January 2022, Renfrew stepped down from the role of CEO and became executive chair and chief brand officer.)
What to Expect in This Book
Renfrew was one of more than 120 women (plus some men!) I interviewed for this book. For reasons of space and narrative focus, there was unfortunately not room for all of them. In the chapters ahead you’ll find profiles of women organized thematically, interwoven with relevant research.
The book is divided into three sections. The first focuses on how and why women tend to build strong companies, starting with the structural challenges they must overcome to raise venture capital and scale their businesses. Then I examine the impetus for women to structure their businesses in a more purpose-driven way. I take a broader look at these companies and how women use empathy and gratitude to solve big-picture problems for the long term. Then I delve into health care, one sector in which women are more likely to both start companies and be customers. The first section of the book concludes with a chapter looking at how women build smart teams by embracing a growth mindset and welcoming varied perspectives.
In the second section I look at how women tackle complex problems. I start by highlighting the stories of women who found success, chafed against their industries’ male-orientation, and then used their expertise to reform them. The second chapter in the section takes a closer look at the transformation of one particular sector where women are the target customers—fashion. The third chapter shows three leaders trying to address seemingly insurmountable problems and to fix their organizations in the face of the most complex challenge of our time: the covid-19 pandemic.
The final section is focused on the new patterns that women leaders are creating to break free of old male-dominated systems. I start with a look at how underestimated characteristics—quietness and vulnerability—can provide a major leadership advantage. Then I examine the myriad ways women have cultivated resilience to overcome challenges, followed by a look at the new networks and communities women are forming to help one another grow and make gains in business. And finally, I look at how data are driving companies and investors to embrace diversity and change.
Though there is plenty of deeply discouraging research about double standards and lack of representation, writing this book gave me an overwhelming feeling of hope. I’m optimistic that these women and others like them—along with the data about the value of their leadership qualities—will make the business world a more equitable place. These companies show us how agile, fast growing, and resilient our economy can be when more women run things—and that reveals promise for our collective future.
My mother said, “By the time you grow up, you’ll be able to do anything.” When it comes to gender equity, conditions have not changed as much as she had hoped. The world right now looks nothing like what she expected. But maybe what she meant was that women of my generation would find new ways to do new things. From what I’ve learned in reporting this book, they are. We need those new approaches now more than ever.
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|ePub||October 12, 2022|