Why Female Leaders Should Stop Trying to Be Like Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs
Photograph by Justin Sullivan — Getty Images

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka refers to International Women’s Day as a day to celebrate women’s past achievements and thank them for continuing to take action in the fight for gender parity.

Yet in the U.S., this day typically comes and goes with little—if any—recognition. Unlike other commercial holidays, stores are not brimming with IWD flowers, chocolates, cards, or celebratory trinkets. It’s not considered even a national holiday, and there is more thought given to buying a cheap costume for Halloween than to celebrating the inspiring women in our lives.

It is true that there have been significant positive shifts in attitude regarding women’s roles in society around the globe. Women are assuming more visible leadership positions: They have a seat in the boardroom, they are scaling successful companies, and they are even running for president. As a result, more and more younger women have the attitude that anything is possible. Nearly 75% of women in their 20s rank career success as “very important,” and about 60% of younger women describe themselves as “very ambitious,” not far off from their male peers. Yet data shows that as women age, ambition declines at a much faster rate, with only 33% of highly qualified women considering themselves “very ambitious” compared to more than half of their male counterparts.

While decreased earning power and traditionally engrained gender roles certainly play a part in slowing ambition and stalling progress, one of the biggest challenges is something women actually have control of: the mind. The mind controls the ability to navigate negotiations and make difficult decisions, two arenas where women have traditionally proven themselves to be weaker.

Studies have shown that both men and women view women as less competent in negotiations: 20% of adult women say they never negotiate at all, even though they often recognize negotiation as appropriate and necessary. Moreover, women tend to be more pessimistic about how much is available when they do negotiate, so they typically ask for and get less—on average, 30% less than men, according to the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women. Not only do these self-sabotaging beliefs prove limiting, they have an amplified effect over time. But individuals who negotiate an increase of $5,000 in starting salaries—compounded over 40 years—will earn an additional $600,000-plus, according to a study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

The amusing image of an indecisive woman hemming and hawing over the pros and cons of a simple decision are ubiquitous; yet indecisiveness is an indication of incompetent leadership. When people imagine strong, visionary leaders, they think of professionals like Steve Jobs, an individual who unwaveringly stood by his own opinions no matter who they offended. Unfortunately, while an increasing number of leaders may see these contradictory qualities as necessarily interlinked, for women who are especially expected to exhibit communal, collaborative behaviors, this kind of callousness is not easy to emulate. Traditionally, women have been taught from a young age to not be overly demanding, and those who are too brash often trigger backlash for gender deviance.


The need to make thoughtful, well-informed decisions is actually hard-wired into women’s brains and results in “discovery-oriented” decision-making vs. “mission- and task-oriented” decision-making that is typical of males, which is supported by data found in the Journal of Consumer Marketing. For example, as the Harvard Business Review notes, when crafting a request for proposal (RFP), men tend to view the RFP as a tool for clarifying the scope of the engagement, and sellers must then try to win by those rules. Women, on the other hand, tend to view RFPs as an outline that is merely an entrée into deeper exploration. Thus, when working together, the question that will make collaboration more effective is, “What is the deciding factor for you?” Understanding that decision-making is a journey with clear landmarks will allow both men and women to become better leaders.

So what can be done to continue making progress?

When it comes to negotiations, women need to persistently question assumptions, request verification, double-check sources, ask for statements in writing, and thoroughly prepare well-researched facts. The ability to project knowledge and competence will create an even playing field and allow all involved parties to communicate on the same level.

All leaders understand the importance of prioritization and filtering when making big decisions. Yet, we are now seeing a clear shift. Traditional masculine leadership traits of assertiveness, self-promotion, and aggressiveness are giving way to a new wave of feminine leadership, driven by collaborative team structures and exploratory, big-picture strategies. Men tend to end the conversation when they reach a satisfactory solution, while women continue to inquire, wanting to take into accounts other team members’ thoughts. This inclination toward an open forum of collaboration and discovery inevitably leads to more rigorously explored opportunities. Young, successful startups are increasingly creating environments where female leaders can thrive. For example, Plated, a meal delivery startup that has raised $56.4 million to date, was founded by two male founders, and has an internal women’s group for their female employees to develop the relationships and mentorships that are crucial to fostering female leadership. The economic implications of women in leadership positions are clear. A recent study of 21,980 publicly traded companies in 91 different countries from various industries found that having at least 30% of women in leadership positions adds 15% to net revenue margin.

There is no longer one definition of leadership. Women have come a long way since the first International Women’s Day in 1911, but the battle is far from over. Women are starting companies at record rates, with female-owned businesses now representing 30% of all U.S. companies. But on average, men start out with nearly twice as much capital at growth firms as women, according to the National Women’s Business Council. The relative homogeneity of the VC landscape, where only 6% of investment professionals are women, is certainly a challenge for female founders, but at its core, the change begins with shifting the mind. As women become stronger decision makers and more informed negotiators, they will gain the power to control their own economic fate, and only then, will the numbers start to change.

Lisa Wang is the cofounder of SheWorx, a collective of ambitious female entrepreneurs and changemakers.


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