Harvard University President Lawrence Summers drew fire earlier this year for comments that suggested gender may play a role in why seemingly fewer women have succeeded in the fields of science and math. Summers’ comments were almost an eerie foreshadowing of the resignation of Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina a month later, arguably the world’s most visible and prominent female executive. Will some view this as proof positive that women can’t succeed in a man’s world?
As one of only a few women business school deans in the nation, it’s not uncommon for me to be asked about the state of women in business. And while I’m inspired to read headlines trumpeting the latest successes of the Oprah Winfreys and Meg Whitmans of the world, this is tempered by the real-world challenges faced by established and up-and-coming women business executives to gain respect-whether in salary or leadership responsibilities-by their peers.
In 2005, it would appear the playing field for women in the workplace is still uneven. And as the next wave of MBA graduates prepare to reenter the workplace this month, senior executives may want to consider some simple truths about how to draw the best of the best (regardless of gender).
Develop your players. I was an NCAA basketball player at Oklahoma State. From the moment I arrived on campus, my ambition was to get game time. I wasn’t discouraged that I was less experienced. Instead, I was hungry. My coach saw it, and she worked with me to guarantee I was ready when the time came. By the time I was a senior, I was prepared to lead. I helped pave the way for the next generation of players.
The same holds true in the work world. Good CEOs are scouting great players all the time-and the successful ones look beyond their own, mostly male network to find their successors and get them into the game. Even CEOs need time to adjust to the playing field, and boards need to be a source of support, not challenges, to a company’s leader. Give them time to understand the corporate culture and then leverage creative differences to create innovation, not alienation.
Girls got guts. Last year, my eight-year-old daughter was learning to surf. For hours, she waded into the waves and repeatedly endured what surfers call “getting barreled”-a thrashing, end-over-end plunge into the churn. Finally, before dozens of mostly male, experienced surfers, she got up on her board. Said one older, wizened surfer who had been keeping a hopeful eye on her, “that girl has got guts.”
Is my eight-year-old ready to run a company? Of course not. But what won her the attention and respect of the elder surfer? Guts. Let’s face it, we want to follow someone who has “gotten barreled,” then gets back up and succeeds. However, in the business world that rarely happens. When women show they’ve got guts and ability to perform at the highest level, senior-level executives and the boards they report to should show their own courage by recognizing their talents and developing their potentials.
Make some waves. There is a common thread among the dozens of women who rise to the No. 2 spot and the handful who have made it to No. 1- they’re disruptive. I don’t mean in a hostile, unproductive or uncomfortably confrontational way. What I mean is, they’ll make waves in standard operating procedure and do it their way. Some have questioned Fiorina’s ability to time her changes and pick her battles in a company that experienced a traumatic merger and an ever-changing marketplace. Good players do, and should, make waves. The difference is knowing which to ride.
In spite of tough critics and discouraging news about this vanguard female leader, I’m optimistic. Fiorina is not the only one making waves. As more women get profit-and-loss responsibilities, receive more behind-the-scenes attention, and earn advanced degrees, the more likely they’ll get the clutch shots at the “buzzer.” And with each shot will come the opportunity to re-evaluate perceptions of performance based on gender and test the assumptions currently held by some academics and business practitioners.
Linda A. Livingstone is dean of the Graziadio School of Business and Management at Pepperdine University.