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Women Who Rise to the Top

Women Who Rise to the Top

Do you ever wonder how career women at the “O” (CEO, CFO, CIO, CTO) level of jobs in the US reach success and still manage their significant home and family responsibilities? Have they cloned themselves? Have they found a way to create more hours in a day or more days in a week? Or have they just done what most of us can do: maximize the leadership traits we already have within us?

To find out some of the skills that these top career women have that help them reach success, I have looked at the work of Diane Halpern and Fanny Cheung, both university professors and researchers in the field of women’s leadership. I’m happy to share my interview with Diane, which demonstrates that you can increase your own success by using the same strategies these women leaders use.

Joanne: In the study you and Fanny conducted with 62 women at the top of their professions, you found that women leaders seem to use a more relational leadership style which includes more open communication and the sharing of information. Can you tell us how that is good for business performance?

Diane: The women leaders in our study value team work. Leadership is about the group and not the individual. They attend more to interpersonal relationships and communication that are consistent with what is called a “transformational style of leadership.” Transformational leaders motivate and stimulate the team in a democratic and non-hierarchical system. There is more sharing of information. Research shows that transformational leadership is more effective at all levels of the organization. Research also finds that businesses with a larger number of women in top management have better financial performance.

Joanne: In your study, as well as in other studies of women leaders, you confirmed that these women considered themselves experts at multitasking. Can you tell us some of the ways these career women multitask and how they consider it a strategy for success?

Diane: The top women leaders have heavy responsibilities both at work and in the family. Since they are short on time, they have to manage their time carefully. One strategy to save time is to do multiple activities at the same time. Some tasks that are routine require less attention and can be combined with other tasks. Our study shows that there are overlapping work-family domains and, therefore, that tasks in these work and family domains can occupy the same time and space. For example, women leaders may read their work papers at home at the same time when the children are reading their story books; they may bring their families along on some business trips; they may bring food home after a business dinner so there is no need to cook when they get home. In this way, they manage to find more time to fulfill their multiple roles.

Joanne: One of the hallmarks of female leadership is that women emphasize empowering others. Please share with us the importance of this leadership skill. Where do you think these women leaders learn the skill of empowering?

Diane: The women leaders recognize the benefits of formal or informal mentoring they have received in their family and at work in building up their self-efficacy, confidence and work skills. In turn, many of them emphasize the importance of mentoring for their female subordinates. Empowering others is also consistent with the transformational style of leadership mentioned above.

Joanne: Your research also shows that top career women give up the idea of being superwomen. What are some of the things they do to shed the impossible task of being the perfect wife and mom?

iane: Being a superwoman is a stereotype that many career women impose on themselves. They hold stereotypical beliefs of what being a successful mother/wife and a successful career woman should be. Some of the things our group of women leaders did was to redefine what a good mother is and what a good leader is and then recognize that the two can be compatible. To help remove the unnecessary guilt that women create within themselves, they can learn from the positive experiences and outcomes of our group of successful women leaders and from research that shows that the quality of parenting is not affected by the employment status of the mother.

The good news for women is that we have natural tendencies for many of the specific leadership skills that are incredibly important in today’s business world. Our job is to identify those skills and then become purposeful in sharpening them to become more effective and successful — both at home and at work.

For more information about the work of Diane Halpern and Fanny Cheung, and to learn about their valuable contributions to working women, please check out their websites:

Fanny Cheung

Diane Halpern

Diane has won many awards for her teaching and research, including the Outstanding Professor Award from the Western Psychological Association, the American Psychological Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching, the Distinguished Career Award for Contributions to Education given by the American Psychological Association, the Silver Medal Award from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), and the California State University’s State-Wide Outstanding Professor Award. Diane was president of the American Psychological Association in 2004 and is a past president of the Society for Teaching of Psychology and the Society for General Psychology. In addition to Women at the Top, she has authored and coauthored many books. Her most recent books include the newly revised 4th edition of “Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities,” and the edited book, “Undergraduate Education in Psychology: A Blueprint for the Future of the Discipline.”

by Joanne Stern 

Joanne Stern, PhD, is a psychotherapist with a private practice emphasizing counseling with families, parents, couples and teens. She’s a teacher, consultant, speaker, and expert guest on parenting and family topics, including communication, discipline, self-esteem, addictions, eating disorders, grief, and loss. In her work with kids, she addresses a variety of childhood disorders, including attention deficit disorder, anxiety, and depression. 

Dr. Stern is dedicated to helping individuals, couples, families, and groups learn, heal, change, and grow in their relationships with one another.


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