These qualities help women leaders succeed when the odds are stacked against them

Julia Boorstin, author of "When Women Lead."
Courtesy of Julia Boorstin

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Emma here. In today’s guest essay, Julia Boorstin, CNBC correspondent and author of When Women Lead: What They Achieve, Why They Succeed, and How We Can Learn From Them, reflects on her learnings since the book’s October release. Plus, a record number of women will serve as governors, and SpaceX’s Gwynne Shotwell gets a new project. Have a relaxing weekend.

– When women lead. I’ve been a business journalist for over two decades, first at Fortune and now at CNBC. After interviewing thousands of CEOs, I wrote a new book about a small group of leaders who succeeded despite the highest odds: women.

Exceptional female leaders like Stitch Fix founder Katrina Lake and Clear CEO Caryn Seidman-Becker have common traits and approaches, like empathy and communal leadership. They look nothing like the stereotype of male leadership and lead in ways that are nothing like the archetype of top-down management. Their stories, shared in my book When Women Lead: What They Achieve, Why They Succeed, And How We Can Learn From Them, offer a new variety of archetypes. These inspiring, surprising narratives mirror how seemingly unremarkable traits can be hugely helpful for leadership.

Since my book’s publication, I’ve discussed it with people in finance, media, advertising, and tech. I’ve found people are open to my optimism about how characteristics often seen as flaws in business can be superpowers. As a journalist who has followed the glacial pace of change in workplace equity, I’ve also found widespread frustration with the same massive gender gaps that frustrate me.

The questions I’ve heard repeatedly: Why aren’t the numbers changing? Why do women hold so few of the most powerful business positions and have little capital access? Female CEOs represent around 8% of the Fortune 500; last year, female-founded companies drew about 2% of VC dollars (down from an average of 3% over the prior decade).

A key piece of the frustration with those dismal numbers is that there’s a perception of progress. The assumption, especially by the men I’ve encountered on this whirlwind book tour, is that things have gotten better for women in the workplace, and gender gaps have closed dramatically.

“When Women Lead” by Julia Boorstin.
Courtesy of Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster

It’s been five years since the cultural reckoning of the #MeToo movement. Corporate America has had women’s affinity groups and DEI initiatives in place for years, if not decades. Companies disclose diversity numbers. So it’s often hard for people to believe that women, particularly women of color, remain underrepresented in the most powerful halls of companies. It makes even less sense if you’ve read the various studies that find that companies with diverse leadership perform better.

But there’s no doubt the solution to persistent and massive gender gaps is just as complex as the problem. The 2022 McKinsey & Lean In Women in the Workplace report finds that when women and people of color aren’t promoted at the same rate as men, they’re far less likely to make it to the corner office. And now there’s a new twist: Senior women are leaving the workplace in the highest numbers ever, at a much faster rate than male leaders. The fundamental problem is they’re frustrated with microaggressions and the lack of career advancement opportunities.

There are signs of progress, though. The Lean In report notes that women hold 26% of C-suite roles, up from 20% in 2017. But we’re still far from the equity that many women expected by now.

Despite the slow pace of change, reporting When Women Lead made me optimistic that we will see progress toward gender equity and that our culture and economy will be better for it.

The characteristics that female leaders are more likely to lead with—such as empathy, vulnerability, and a communal approach to leadership—are particularly essential in uncertain times like these. I believe those traits will help women succeed and that men are also starting to understand the value of those approaches and lean into them.

Julia Boorstin

The Broadsheet is Fortune’s newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women. Today’s edition was curated by Emma Hinchliffe. Subscribe here.


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