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How Story Can Increase the Number of Women Executives

By Kelly Sarabyn

Sheri McCoy resigning from Avon Products marks the third prominent female CEO to leave her post in recent months. As only 5 to 6 percent of CEOs at the nation’s largest companies are female, the loss of even three women CEOs is a step backward, revealing how fragile women’s inroads to the top might be.

Why women aren’t reaching the executive suite in greater numbers is a complicated question, but part of the answer lies with companies’ internal workplace cultures. Uber, for example, has been heavily criticized for how its aggressive workplace culture created an environment where supervisors felt free to sexually harass women, bully employees, and engage in other forms of discrimination.

The tech industry generally has a reputation of cultivating a workaholic, “bro” culture that is inimical to women’s professional success. A number of women working in the field have come forward to share their stories of an industry quick to look the other way when men in leadership positions sexually harass their female subordinates.

The culture of a company is the invisible backdrop which shapes interactions among all employees, from interns to CEOs. It implicitly sets the standards and expectations for which behaviors are prized, and which are discouraged.

For a long time, companies have ignored workplace culture as an amorphous development outside their control, but recent research has revealed workplace culture’s importance in retaining employees and keeping them productive. Companies are increasingly committed to figuring out how to harness their internal culture.

When companies discuss changing their culture to encourage women’s success, they often talk in terms of benefits: offering maternity leave, setting up formal mentorship opportunities, the ability to work part-time, and equal pay for equal work, for example. Such benefits are important in their own right, but they don’t necessarily change workplace culture, and in fact, without a culture to support them, they often go unused. Many tech companies, for example, offer generous maternity leave, but still have a work-all-the-time culture that punishes employees who choose to use it. Across all industries, 90 percent of employees believe taking extended family leave will shrink their career prospects.

 

How Culture Affects Female Leadership

Workplace cultures that are explicitly misogynistic will hinder women from reaching the C-suite. Susan Fowler, the engineer who brought widespread attention to Uber’s internal culture, wrote of a workplace that was dominated by “political games,” “chaos,” back-stabbing, and misogyny.

But a workplace culture need not be explicitly misogynistic to put the brakes on women’s success. Much of what prevents women from obtaining leadership positions are unconscious gender stereotypes about women’s ability to lead, and the implicit ways women are judged differently than men for the same behaviors. For example, subjective elements of performance reviews have been documented to cast women in a more critical light than men, even when they are exhibiting the same leadership flaw, such as being indecisive. For a man, indecisiveness might be interpreted as thoughtfulness, while for a woman it might be interpreted as paralysis and anxiety.

Workplace cultures that are rudderless and undefined, or based on a win-at-all-costs ethos will allow these pervasive implicit biases to operate unchecked. Win-at-all-costs cultures, for example, rarely have structures or values in place that can refocus attention on more salient, objective factors of women’s performance. Political machinations and powerplays in the office are relationship-based and highly subjective — allowing implicit biases to flourish, both implicit biases about women’s leadership abilities, and the implicit biases of current executives seeking mentees who replicate their own personality and interests, which, because of the heavily male demographic of current executives, will also tend to be male.

 

How Brand Story Can Change Workplace Culture 

A company’s brand story can shape a workplace’s culture by refocusing interactions and evaluations on the “why” behind the company. The “why” of a company is to empower the heroes of its story — its customers — to better their world. By structuring employee incentives, rewards, and attitudes around helping customers fulfill their ambitions, a company’s employees will be engaged, and willing to go the extra mile.

A story-driven culture can facilitate women’s advancement in a number of ways. First, by focusing on objective metrics of meeting customers’ needs, implicit biases about women’s leadership skills will be diminished. Prioritizing employees’ abilities to empower customers on their journey, as opposed to softer, more subjective criteria, will create transparent deliverables that allow women a clearer path to leadership.

Second, by cultivating a culture of purpose and meaning, leaders who value making a difference will excel over leaders motivated by power and status. In research studies, men have been found, on average, to put a greater priority on obtaining power and status, acting aggressively, and choosing to work in competitive environments, while women put a greater priority on the purpose of their work. A purpose-driven workplace will find more women rising to the top.

A story-driven culture is not just a springboard for women’s success, it also improves a company’s financials, as it creates engaged employees across the board, reducing turnover and shirking. It is also likely to improve sales: for most companies, the heroes of their story are both men and women. Having a C-suite that is over 90 percent male creates a rift between company leadership and the customers they are trying to connect with. Deloitte, for example, reframed their internal gender initiatives as “a way to boost client satisfaction and generate revenue” by better connecting with female customers.

REI is a perfect example of a company that has a story-driven workplace culture that has translated into more women leaders. Forty-four percent of REI’s corporate officers are women, which far surpasses the U.S. norm of twenty-three percent. REI’s female leadership and focus on empowering everyday heroes to experience the great outdoors led the company to realize, despite claiming the outdoors made them feel free, women were more reluctant than men to embark on outdoor adventures. To address this, REI launched products and marketing initiatives specifically designed to inspire more women to embrace the outdoor lifestyle. Such initiatives not only create more customers for REI, they provide its employees with a strong sense of purpose.

Companies with at least 30% women in the C-suite are more profitable than companies with fewer women in the C-suite, which might be partially explained by story-driven workplace cultures creating both greater opportunities for women leaders, and more sales. A story-driven workplace culture can empower women leaders while also keeping business booming. It’s a win-win.

Kelly Sarabyn is a manager at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, let Woden help. Read our free StorytellingBlueprint, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.