Are Women Risk-Takers? – Exhibit One: Mary Barra

Leslie Grossman, Senior Fellow & Faculty, The George Washington University Center for Excellence in Public Leadership

When discussing the lack of gender equality in the C-Suite or on the Boards of the Fortune 500, men are sometimes heard to explain, “Women don’t have the guts to make the tough decisions.” Women are viewed as great at soft skills, nurturing their people and creating positive cultures, but they are rarely described as risk-taking, which is synonymous with saying they lack courage. Recent events, as well as research proves that women leaders are both courageous and risk-takers.

Are Women Risk-Takers – Exhibit One-Mary BarraEnter Mary Barra, Chairman and CEO of General Motors. Recently, Barra showed her fearlessness by making the tough decision to cut the GM workforce and close plants making slow-selling auto models in preparation for the future. Some may say she was harsh. Others are applauding her courageous move, including her willingness to take political blowback. Barra says she made this decision to make sure “GM is lean and agile to get in front and lead in autonomous and electric vehicles.” Who says women are not courageous?

Ginny Rometty, CEO of IBM, continues to pursue her strategy of investing in new technologies. Though total revenue has declined for 2 years in a row, IBM’s revenue in nonlegacy areas has risen by 69%. She has promised to invest $1 billion in the development and commercialization of the cognitive computing system, another future growth area for the company. Ginny Rometty is a risk-taker.

The list goes on of Fortune 100 women leaders willing to take risks with the goal of future growth and success. Indra Nooyi , former CEO of Pepsi, Ellen Kullman of DuPont, and Marilyn Hewson of Boeing to name only a few, are women leaders who are fearless for the future of their organizations. Yet only 5% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women. Some of that is due to the myth that women are not risk-takers.

According to the Everest Project’s 2-year study “The Eve of Change – Redefining Corporate America” released in 2016, women take ‘smart risks’. According to the study, “Women rely on their relational skills of involving others to convert potentially dangerous risk into informed advantage. They get the right people on the team, collaborate, get buy-in, and bring others along as a way to manage, mitigate or minimize risk. They transform their companies by taking smart risks.”

Women, in fact, do have “the right stuff”. If that’s true, what’s creating the female deficit? We can all admit that conscious and unconscious bias is alive and well, and usually attributed to men. Perhaps not only do men need to be convinced that women are courageous risk-takers, but women need to be convinced as well. Many women have limited beliefs that stop them from going for the career they really desire. Women do not lack the intelligence, attributes or ambition of an effective leader; but what they may lack are the specific skills to level the playing field and transform unconscious gender bias into gender equality.

Skills like relationship-building with influencers, direct communication, leadership presence, amplification, and vocal confidence are not taught in either undergrad or graduate programs. Some women learn these skills along the way from a male mentor or sponsor, but most women are isolated from learning the techniques that will propel their career. A few universities, like The George Washington University Center for Excellence in Public Leadership offer such training for executive women. A few smart corporations realize the need to groom more women for leadership. Women who are ambitious to contribute seek out women’s leadership programs for themselves. If you know the future success of your business requires diversity at the top, or are a woman who wants to move up the ladder send them my way. My vision is for a world of gender equity which will drive positive change for the global economy.

“We fundamentally believe that we will make better business decisions if we have diversity in thinking … and that requires equal gender participation.” — Jonas Prising, Chairman and CEO of ManpowerGroup (Source: World Economic Forum)


About the Author: Leslie Grossman lives her purpose – developing, coaching and transforming women executives and entrepreneurs to achieve their personal visions of success.  Her focus is on supporting and training women to become effective communicators with leadership presence and confidence and to build trusted relationships throughout their careers.

Founder of the Women’s Leadership Exchange, a national conference program from 2001 – 2010, a former business owner, and a Chair for Vistage International, Leslie is an executive leadership coach, trainer, speaker and facilitator of groups and advisory boards.  She presents workshops to many organizations, including LATAM Business School, Impact Leadership 21 and Leading with Edge; and is a senior fellow and on the faculty of The George Washington University Center for Excellence in Public Leadership. She is the author of two books, “Link Out: How to Turn Your Network into a Chain of Lasting Connections “(Wiley) and “Sellsation: How Companies Can Capture Today’s Hottest Market: Women Business Owners and Executives “(WPE Press). Her TEDx Talk: “The Value of Having an Entourage” is highly viewed and espouses how the most innovative ideas and results come from collaborating among trusted allies.  She can be reached at Leslie@lesliegrossmanleadership.com

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