The Business Case For Women In The C-Suite

There may be fewer women in the corner office, but a new survey reveals that they help boost the bottom line and inspire others.

The Business Case For Women In The C-Suite
[Photo: Flickr user Michael Coghlan]

Here’s what we know: gender diversity is good for business.


A recent study revealed that an even gender split at one company contributed to a 41% increase in revenue, while oft-cited research by Catalyst demonstrates that companies with higher female representation in top management outperform those that don’t by delivering 34% greater returns to shareholders. And although only 5% of Fortune 1000 companies have a female CEO, they generate 7% of the Fortune 1000’s total revenue and outperform the S&P 500 index during the course of their respective tenures.

Yet, stubborn unconscious biases exist in everything, from to getting a small business loan. Even a simple Google image search, powered by algorithms, can play favorites with genders.

But there is one bright spot. Several studies have found that corporate reputation is synonymous with investor confidence and higher earnings.
And a new report by Weber Shandwick reveals there is gender parity when it comes to reputation. Specifically, the effect of a CEO’s reputation on both the company’s reputation and its market value are almost identical for both male and female CEOs.


The report, The Female Reputation Premium, was part of a larger study on CEO reputations conducted via an online survey of more than 1,750 executives (but not the CEOs) in mid- to large-size companies in 19 countries. Globally, male executives represented 62% of the sample and female executives 38%, but those proportions varied by market.

Part of the parity may stem from the fact that there were more leadership traits that both male and female CEOs shared than not. Among them:

  • Acknowledges contributions of others
  • Competitive
  • Innovative
  • Decisive
  • Collaborative
  • Honest and ethical
  • Risk taker
  • Inspires and motivates
  • Good listener
  • Charismatic

Those that were gender specific for men deal primarily with big-picture thinking:

  • Has a clear vision for the company
  • Excellent in crisis
  • Has global business outlook
  • Wins awards

Those for women CEOs reflect some of the common stereotypes and expectations for females in leadership, including:

  • Open and accessible
  • Cares about others

The report also revealed that female CEOs are more likely to be described as being more willing to talk to the media than their male counterparts, more likely to be comfortable doing so (33% vs. 39%), and more likely than men to participate in social media (20% vs. 15%). The report’s authors were quick to note that with so few women at the helm of large companies (23 of the Fortune 500), they often find themselves in the media spotlight, whether they want to be or not.

“Our study suggests that stereotyped differences in leadership style don’t really matter–both styles can be equally effective and respected,” writes Micho Spring, Weber Shandwick’s global corporate practice chair. “No matter the approach, a qualified CEO has been able to rise to the top. Whatever his or her personal traits may be, they have been effective and demonstrably competitive,” Spring adds.


Despite the parity in reputation, the actual numbers in those leadership roles remain uneven, and even executives themselves don’t realize it. Both men and women guessed that there were more female CEOs of large companies than actually exist. Despite the fact that only 5% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women, both genders estimated that number to be an average of 23%.

Not many of the women surveyed aspire to reaching the top spot. Less than a quarter of women executives (23%) have their eye on the corner office, as opposed to over one-third (32%) of their male peers. The number varies by region. Sixty-eight percent of North American female executives dismissed the notion of rising to the helm entirely. That ambition tends to climb when women work for a female CEO. Interest rose to 29% globally in that case.

But the CEO’s gender and reputation also has a positive impact on retaining female staff. Seventy percent of women executives who report to a female CEO say their chief’s reputation influences their decision to remain at their company.


That’s good news, because while both men (50%) and women (58%) executives believe it’s important to have women in leadership to create more female role models and mentors, other research found that just having more women in managerial roles hasn’t broken down the wage barrier for their female employees.

Still, the report suggests that even though top leadership isn’t on too many women’s wish lists, it is important for companies to continue to develop female talent to ensure the future pipeline of leaders is diverse.



About the author

Lydia Dishman is a staff editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.


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