Author Talks: Dismantling double standards in business with CNBC’s Julia Boorstin

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Julia Boorstin, senior media and tech correspondent at CNBC, about her new book When Women Lead: What They Achieve, Why They Succeed, and How We Can Learn from Them (Simon & Schuster, October 2022). Boorstin spent the pandemic lockdown examining the management styles of more than 60 female CEOs who helm leading companies in healthcare, beauty, biotech, and more. She learned about vulnerability from Goop’s Gwyneth Paltrow, she learned how to read the wind from CLEAR’s Caryn Seidman-Becker, and now she’s sharing the reasons why these leaders thrived through the pandemic’s challenges (see sidebar, “Leaders featured in the book”). An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why is your book timely now?

When Women Lead is particularly relevant right now because women have been hit so hard by the pandemic, leaving the workforce in greater numbers. Pay gaps have not made any progress toward closing. I think back to when I was 13 years old. My mom, who grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, told me that by the time I grew up, men and women would be on equal footing in the workplace. She was absolutely wrong, but I believed her.

I thought she was right. I thought it was obvious that she was right because women had made so much progress since she grew up, when her choices were to become either a teacher or a nurse. That’s what she felt her professional options were. For me, I felt like the world was going to be my oyster.

I was disappointed and sort of surprised to see how much the business world was dominated by men when I entered the workforce as a young reporter for Fortune magazine. That’s when I realized that, yes, men and women may be in the workforce in more equal numbers, but the fact that the C-suite is dominated by men means that there’s much more work to do to get anywhere near equality or equity in the workplace.

Why do you assert that ‘woman leaders, by definition, are exceptional’?

Women are by definition exceptional when it comes to leadership of major American companies. Female CEOs represent just 8 percent of Fortune 500 CEO roles, and that’s actually an all-time high.

As a journalist in the business world for 23 years—six years at Fortune magazine and 16 and a half years now at CNBC—I have been interviewing CEOs. I was meeting CEOs through my work, and I saw that women were in a tiny minority. Perhaps more interesting, though, is that they seemed to be approaching challenges and problems in a different way.

I thought, yes, they are exceptions to the rule, but maybe they’re also exceptional because they’ve been able to defy the odds to be in that tiny minority of women who make it into those top positions. I was particularly interested by the technology space, because there, women seem to face even higher bars and higher challenges than in other sectors.

In the venture capital space, about $330 billion was invested in the United States in start-ups last year. Two percent of that went to companies with female founders.

In the venture capital space, about $330 billion was invested in the United States in start-ups last year. Two percent of that went to companies with female founders. A slightly larger percent went to companies with both male and female founders, but 82 percent of all venture capital dollars went to companies with all-male founding teams.

Talk about exceptional: the women who were able to secure that 2 percent of venture funding and then go on to grow and scale start-ups—which is a hard thing to do for both men and women—are definitely exceptional. I figured, if they can defy those odds, they must have leadership lessons that would be valuable not just for women but for everyone.

Why do you assert that women tend to be more considerate of data in their risk assessments?

In business for many years, people talked about the importance of IQ, or “smarts.” Then, there was an empathy quotient, EQ, and then something else called an adaptability quotient. An adaptability quotient measures ability to watch data, to see how things are changing, and then make adjustments and adapt—not based on your own ideas about what’s going to happen but based on the numbers and the data.

There’s a lot of research showing that people believe that female leaders are more adaptable: more quickly able to pivot and let go of their plan, or not be stuck. Women rank very high in adaptability in studies of female leaders versus male leaders. Adaptability is essential because it’s not just about the ability to be good at something—it’s the ability to read the data, to frequently consider data, and to be willing to drop your original plan and switch strategies when the data indicates that’s the best thing to do.

I found this to be a very strong characteristic among many of the women I interviewed. I was lucky to be able to report this book during the pandemic, the greatest test of leadership in business of our time, and the greatest test of leadership in business, probably since World War II.

What was so interesting is that I was watching in real time as CEOs had to figure out how much they were going to stay the course and try to stick with their business as it was, or how they were going to figure out how to best adapt to the situation.

Adaptability is essential because it’s not just about the ability to be good at something—it’s the ability to read the data, to frequently consider data, and to be willing to drop your original plan and switch strategies when the data indicates that’s the best thing to do.

There are many women in my book who demonstrated a high adaptability quotient, particularly when it came to the challenges of the pandemic. One woman I think about in particular is Caryn Seidman-Becker, the CEO of CLEAR, a biometrics company that helps people move quickly through the airport. Weeks before a global pandemic was declared, she was starting to see indications that global travel was going to come to a screeching halt.

Long before airports shut down, she decided to slash the spending for the company for the entire year. Although $24 million was intended to be spent on advertising, she slashed the entire spend—earlier than many thought that she would have—because she was looking at the data and the indications around travel. She realized that this was not the time to spend any money on marketing.

Similarly, in December 2020, Caryn started to see indications based on travel data that there would be an uptick in demand for CLEAR’s services, so she aggressively ramped up hiring. She not only rehired everyone who had worked for the company but started hiring new people to meet what she anticipated would be demand.

One thing that I think is most remarkable about Caryn is that during the pandemic, she transitioned CLEAR from being all about travel to being about health and access, too. You may have used a CLEAR pass on your phone to get into a conference, to get into an event, or even to get into your office. She had an investment in health technology and using biometrics for both health screening and health identity before the pandemic, but as soon as she saw that the pandemic was going to be a pandemic, she started doubling down, even tripling down on this area to make CLEAR more than just a travel company.

More than a year before the vaccine became widely available, Caryn had already started figuring out how to use CLEAR as a health pass that would connect to your vaccine records. She was able to look around corners and plan ahead because she was so focused, not on her original plan, but on responding to the data and the opportunity that the data would show her.

Why are woman CEOs more likely to include varied perspectives in decision making?

There’s this idea of divergent thinking versus convergent thinking. A researcher named Barbara Annis says that women are more likely to do divergent thinking. This means pulling in perspectives from across an organization and pulling on threads that may seem tangential to solving a problem, but which actually give you a big-picture idea of the problem you’re solving.

While men might be driving quickly toward a solution, women might say, “What about these other things that give us a broader sense of the big picture?” This makes me think of Toyin Ajayi, the CEO of a company called Cityblock Health. She’s trying to help improve health outcomes for low-income patients, who are often going in and out of emergency rooms and are weighing on the healthcare system.

Toyin said, “We can’t just help patients by treating their symptoms and sending them back out into the streets. We have to look at the big picture. Let’s figure out the entirety of their healthcare situation. Let’s not just rush to solve for the problem. Let’s think about what’s going to make them healthier over the long run.” Now, Cityblock Health helps with things like housing and social services to make sure that the patient isn’t just getting a Band-Aid but is going to be healthier over the long run.

It’s not just about helping a specific tree. Women increasingly look at the forest surrounding the tree to figure out how to make that specific tree healthier, stronger, or better.

Another example is April Koh, the CEO of a company called Spring Health. April was interested in trying to use data to help with mental healthcare. A lot of mental healthcare is done by psychologists and psychiatrists, and it’s a very personal experience, but she thought that if we could get data about everything that works for patients—their sleep habits, their exercise habits, the exact circumstances in which they took certain pharmaceuticals—that data could provide a big, divergent picture of all the different things that play into mental healthcare and helping someone get better.

It’s not just about helping a specific tree. Women increasingly look at the forest surrounding the tree to figure out how to make that specific tree healthier, stronger, or better.

How do women lead by ignoring expectations?

There’s such a dominant stereotype of what a leader looks like, and it is typically, archetypically, a white man. A lot of the women I spoke with said they didn’t feel like they had to do things the same way as their male counterparts, because they already didn’t fit the mold.

I think about Jennifer Holmgren. She’s the CEO of a company called LanzaTech that turns pollution into fuel—a moonshot idea, but she has the technology that makes it happen. This was something that she was willing to pursue even though people told her it would never happen, that it would never be accepted by the factories that have to adopt her technology to capture their pollution.

Jennifer is a Colombian immigrant, she’s an introvert, and she doesn’t like to talk loudly in meetings, so she said, “I’ll just do things my own way, because no one ever expected me to fit in a box anyway.” By being able and empowered to do things in her own way, she felt like she could not only lead differently, but also solve something like pollution differently as well.

What can you tell us about woman leaders being comfortable with vulnerability?

There’s a lot of data about how vulnerability is incredibly valuable for leaders. It makes them more approachable by their employees, and it also encourages employees to share their ideas and help contribute to problem-solving and building a company’s assets.

One thing I heard from Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s been incredibly successful with Goop, is that she uses vulnerability in her management of Goop and in the content they share. One moment that was a tipping point for Goop was when Gwyneth Paltrow publicly talked about how she had suffered from postpartum depression.

Here was this movie star who didn’t seem to have any problems in the world, and she was being incredibly vulnerable about her own challenges. That made her relatable and accessible, in a way that she probably wasn’t before.

Similarly, as she took more control over running Goop—she only became CEO several years into the company’s operations—she started asking questions about things she didn’t understand, such as acronyms in meetings. She found that this invited other people to ask questions as well, and it enabled everyone to participate in meetings without worrying about asking questions and revealing that maybe they didn’t know exactly what the COO [chief operations officer] or another executive was talking about.

How can leaders use humility to go after big problems?

Female entrepreneurs are more likely to launch purpose-driven companies. These are companies that want to attain a social or environmental good in addition to attaining profits. Having a social or environmental good is incredibly valuable for companies when they’re trying to attract and retain employees and give those employees a sense of mission, especially in tough times, such as what we just went through with the pandemic.

It’s also attractive to customers—especially if you’re a consumer-facing company—to have that social or environmental good baked in. With investors as well, we see an increasing focus on ESG [environmental, social, and governance]. Female founders are more likely to be focused on the purpose-driven space, and there’s data that these purpose-driven companies can outperform. A number of the women I talked with for the book were working on purpose-driven companies, such as Shivani Siroya, who has a company called Tala that provides microloans. There is also Christine Moseley, who has a company called Full Harvest that’s focused on food waste.

Female founders are more likely to be focused on the purpose-driven space, and there’s data that these purpose-driven companies can outperform.

I asked them why they decided to launch these as for-profit companies rather than not for profits—there are various endeavors trying to tackle similar issues, but through the guise of being a nonprofit rather than a for-profit company—and both of them said that there is massive financial opportunity if we can tackle these challenges as a for-profit company. They said our ability to impact change would be much bigger.

They also said they wanted to show the value in aligning as a for-profit company while also benefiting society or the environment. They think the more that they can have those two things be closely aligned, the more successful they’ll be.

Why are women ‘punished’ for simply being successful in traditionally male roles?

We talk a lot in society about double standards, or higher bars that women have to meet. There’s data about this kind of gender incongruity. If someone doesn’t fit a stereotype, if someone doesn’t fit into what’s expected of them, then they’re more likely to be criticized or judged harshly.

There’s a professor named Victoria Brescoll who looks at how people are judged more harshly if they are in roles that are not considered gender congruent. For instance, a female police chief is going to be judged far more harshly than a male police chief because people who are used to seeing male police chiefs are saying, “This person doesn’t fit my stereotype or the pattern of what I expect of them in this role.”

Women are effectively expected to be more nurturing and caring, and when they are succeeding in roles that are traditionally male, they’re often criticized for that. They’re also criticized if they don’t act nurturing and caring.

Ultimately, the fact that women are judged more harshly has nothing to do with their talents or abilities and everything to do with the fact that they’re still unusual in these leadership roles.

One of the people I interviewed said, “It’s not just a double standard, it’s a double bind. Women have to succeed both in male characteristics and in female characteristics. No matter what they do, they face this extra scrutiny because they are in the minority.”

There’s a theory called token theory, where if you aren’t used to seeing someone—if someone is in a minority group—you’re going to be focused on them to the point that you may criticize them more harshly because you’re not used to seeing them. Ultimately, the fact that women are judged more harshly has nothing to do with their talents or abilities and everything to do with the fact that they’re still unusual in these leadership roles. It’s not rational, and it’s not fair.

Are you still optimistic about these issues?

There’s a lot of data that indicates that we are far, far away from gender equity. There are studies showing that women are judged more harshly on everything from using humor in the workplace to giving feedback in the workplace. There are so many challenges for women in the workplace, especially right now.

But I’m incredibly optimistic, despite the fact that last year women got 2 percent of all venture capital funding and are only 8 percent of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. I am incredibly optimistic because the data show that when women are in leadership positions, when more women are on boards, and when more women are in the C-suite, companies are more successful. All of the data, whether it’s about gender diversity or racial diversity, indicates that more diverse companies simply perform better.

I am incredibly optimistic because the data show that when women are in leadership positions, when more women are on boards, and when more women are in the C-suite, companies are more successful. All of the data, whether it’s about gender diversity or racial diversity, indicates that more diverse companies simply perform better.

I believe that venture capital investors care about making money, and the more they’re aware of the data that indicates the financial opportunity in diversity, they’ll see that it’s not just nice to have, it’s not a philanthropic endeavor to put women into more leadership roles—it is a financial imperative. Spending years poring over all of this research shows one thing: every piece of data indicates the financial opportunity in diversity.

When looking at the risks of recession, the fact that we’re facing record inflation, and the uncertainty in the business world right now, I think about the challenges that women have always faced and the way they’ve coped with them: having to do more with less, having to be scrappy, and having to bring in perspectives from across organizations.

The approaches that women have either been forced to take or have had the impulse to take are going to be incredibly valuable right now in navigating these uncertain times.

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