Women who have made it to the top in business often look back to analyse what has helped — or hindered — their advancement in this highly gendered environment. Shared through mass media, their reflections can provide helpful guidance to other aspiring businesswomen on what it takes to succeed. HSE sociologists have examined relevant media discourse and identified ten key factors of women's business leadership.
Even today, the collective consciousness perceives entrepreneurship as a predominantly male occupation. In many countries, this stereotype is played up by the media, which sometimes assumes women's entrepreneurship to be less goal-oriented and less successful than men's.
But aside from stereotypes about men’s versus women’s styles of doing business, there are only a few gender-based differences supported by evidence. In particular, women are more likely to work part-time, less likely to run more than one business, and tend to work from home more often (to be closer to family). Women's entrepreneurship may be less visible than men's, but there is no reason to consider it less successful.
The situation is similar with leadership, which is still viewed from the perspective of masculine norms. Reality seems to follow these assumptions: senior executives in many countries are predominantly male, despite gender quotas to increase female representation in top managerial positions. A study in the US revealed that nearly half of the newly public companies had all-male boards.
Achievement-driven behaviour, decisiveness, and a ‘hunter's mindset’ are often associated with men's leadership style, while women are usually recognised for being supportive and caring.
Yet despite the challenges and prejudices, women's representation in business and the senior management of large corporations has been growing worldwide, including in Russia. There are many examples of female achievement in Russian business.
However, gender stereotypes are deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness despite the evidence. Indeed, such stereotypes are often perpetuated by how business success is portrayed in the media, including the overall discourse, metaphors, and stories.
Media representations of women entrepreneurs not only reflect gender segregation in business, but often reproduce it. For example, stereotypes such as 'women's entrepreneurship is a just continuation of traditional women's skills' can hinder women's career advancement, often forcing them to downshift and forego entrepreneurship altogether.
A recent paper by doctoral student Anastasia Voronkova and professor Elena Rozhdestvenskaya focuses on the phenomenon of 'achievement femininity' reflected in career success. The paper examines first-hand stories of female high-achievers — successful women who think of their gender as a career advantage – including their reflections on women's roles in the family and at work. Seen in the context of prevalent media representations, this analysis illustrates the current discourse on career success factors for women entrepreneurs.
The sociologists analysed 20 interviews with professional women and identified the following ten highlights in the discourse on women's achievement:
education as a factor of social and professional capital
introspection and reflection on one’s career path
breaking gender stereotypes in family life — but not always at work
female role models
women's leadership and support from women's communities
flexible leadership style
awareness of self-imposed limitations as career barriers
male peers as competitors and allies
planning for a work-life balance and treating the family as a business project
The sample consisted of ‘Women on Boards of Directors’ club members, including executives from sectors such as finance, commerce, energy, oil and gas, ICT, diplomacy, and others. Their interviews with the club's leader broadcast on the Mediametrics platform were transcribed and analysed using the grounded theory-based technique. At stage one, the researchers identified the key themes and concepts that came up in the interviews, and stage two involved in-depth examination and interpretation.
Sharing their success stories, the respondents focused on aspects such as human capital, education, girls' socialisation, having a career strategy and role models in the family or workplace, and barriers, including self-imposed limitations.
The high achievers were less likely to discuss women's leadership styles, work-life balance, and the role of women's business communities in countering gender-based discrimination. Similarly, external factors in women's advancement such as social policy, including gender quotas, were rarely mentioned.
The following are ten key aspects of business success shared by high-achieving women in their interviews.
The respondents emphasised the importance of high-quality and relevant education as a factor in competence. 'One's professional capital includes <...> knowledge and education, training, experience and social skills,' according to Svetlana B. There were two main approaches to education shared in the interviews: vocational training combined with business education, and lifelong learning, which may include retraining and getting a second or third degree. In addition to human capital, building one's social capital was also mentioned as essential for career advancement.
Many respondents emphasised the importance of reflection and self-analysis to ensure that your education really benefits your career. According to Irina G., 'The first thing is to ask yourself what matters to you, what do you want to do? As for me, I am particularly motivated by complex, challenging problems that pique my intellectual curiosity.' It is obvious from most interviews that the respondents are self-driven and make their own choices in their lives and careers. 'It is as if their taste for tackling complex intellectual problems — a taste developed as a result of quality education and professional expertise — gives them a mandate for joining the highly competitive and masculine business environment,' the researchers comment.
The respondents' socialisation was usually different from the traditional gendered approach to raising girls. Tatyana U. recalls, 'I was not raised to be "gentle and modest" — nor was my brother raised to be "tough and masculine". We were both raised to be leaders.' Another important aspect of their childhood was a trusting relationship with parents. 'My dad, being a psychologist, made sure that all difficult matters were discussed in a constructive manner and spent a lot of time talking with me,' said Agnessa R. Good parent-child communication was complemented by financial literacy developed early on.
However, the respondents tend to have an ambivalent attitude towards gender stereotypes. On one hand, they believe that overcoming such stereotypes will take time. According to Sofia A., 'There is a stereotypical image of a female leader as a nasty, toxic woman.' Such stereotypes can discourage women from taking highly paid and prestigious positions. On the other hand, a negative stereotype can be perceived as a challenge to personal growth. According to Agnessa R., negative assumptions are 'reservoirs of energy' which can be used productively.
But the respondents reject the idea of trying to fight stereotypes by adopting 'masculine' approaches to career advancement. 'By trying to adopt a "masculine" pattern of behaviour, a woman relies on her "weaker" side, while forgetting about her strengths,' according to Anna R.
Some respondents referred to role models in their family. Irina G. mentioned her grandmother, a military doctor who 'had fought in the [Second World] War and was a role model of being perfectly organised and always in control'.
Traditional beliefs about women's roles were discussed in the family context and extrapolated to a work environment; caring for others was emphasised in some interviews. 'Describing a woman leader as a role model, we need to mention that she is happy in her family. She is married, with children, <...> other relatives, <...> and responsibilities to her elderly parents,' says Natalya I. She refers to women as guardians of the family who 'create a cultural and ethical code' for other family members and, to a certain extent, play this role in the workplace.
Some respondents said that their role models had empowered them to overcome barriers. '[My female supervisors] made me believe in myself,' says Yulia S. 'They helped me understand that there are no boundaries!'
According to the respondents, while women's leadership and achievement are possible, not all attempts at attaining them may be successful. One respondent makes an ambivalent statement by saying that leadership qualities are 'innate but [can be] developed'. She admits, 'I sometimes advise people who, in my opinion, do not possess leadership potential against trying to build this kind of career <...>. They risk ruining their own and other people's lives.'
Some respondents commented on the role of women's clubs in promoting women's leadership by making it possible for women to share relevant experience and to instrumentalise their social capital. According to Svetlana B., 'Women are often skilled at building [social] connections but less so at using such connections for business and career purposes. I believe that women's communities are excellent fora for training these skills <...>.'
While some interviewees deny that there is such a thing as a women's leadership style, others consider it a valuable resource. Anna B. denies the role of gender in this context: 'I strongly believe that competence is all that matters.' But Tatyana M. has a different perspective: 'Women's ability to be mediators and moderators is our key strength.' Women can resolve conflicts by helping the conflicting parties to express their respective positions and to find common interests.
Women's qualities mentioned in this context include flexibility, the tendency to mitigate risks, and creativity. 'As a woman, I use a different approach,' explains Elena S. 'I can back down when opposed but still make my point later in a more subtle way.' She considers it an advantage to be able to compete 'in a manner unlike other board members, most of whom are male'.
Roles associated with women's leadership varied across the interviews from an expressly dominating 'alpha female' to an unobtrusive but powerful 'shadow leader'.
A woman leader is expected to take charge in a challenging situation, in particular when it is a matter of survival. 'We are less tolerant of risk,' says Tatyana O. 'Nature itself forces us to see things differently <...> because preserving life is essential to us; it is our mission.' Many interviews contain similar references to an intrinsic feminine nature, corresponding to an essentialist interpretation of femininity.
According to the respondents, these include inadequate motivation and low self-esteem, often caused by a gendered culture that discourages women from having career ambitions. 'Many women refuse to take pride in what they have achieved,' according to Ekaterina K. 'This is self-depreciation.' In this context, women's 'low competitiveness' is indeed a patriarchal myth. 'Women need to work twice as hard as men to make it to the same positions,' explains Tatyana U.
Even the glass ceiling, a metaphor for external barriers to a woman's career, can partly be interpreted in terms of self-imposed limitations due to internalised cultural stereotypes. Demonstrating 'impeccable professionalism' is seen as a way for women to overcome such internalised barriers.
While men are perceived as competitors, they can also motivate women to strive for success. 'My first [male] boss saw some kind of talent in me — leadership abilities or charisma,' says Yulia S. Men can be pragmatic about women’s leadership and find it beneficial; then they show trust in their female colleagues. Anna N. recalls, 'He said to me, “I work with you. And I do not care what company you are with, because I know that you will not let me down."'
'Double employment', ie combining a career with household and parenting responsibilities, is seen as both an asset and a burden. 'We juggle more roles than men,' said Tatyana U. Faced with extensive job responsibilities, the respondents feel the need to manage their other roles of being a wife, mother or daughter. Some apply a business management strategy to family life, approaching family as a project that requires planning and investment. 'Unless we treat it as a project, engage in resource planning, and think of how much time we can devote to our family and children, we may not see any success in this sphere, I am afraid,' says Anastasia M.
Mechanisms such as gender quotas are designed to support women's career advancement and to offset the predominance of men in executive positions. So far, Russia has not introduced gender quotas. The respondents are not enthusiastic about this measure. 'As a woman, I would not want to be part of a quota,' says Sophia A.
Hearing such comments from women who have achieved career success in the absence of gender quotas is understandable. On the other hand, quotas can be seen as a mechanism for regulating the country's labour market. According to Tatyana Z., 'Certain things here need to be strictly regulated, and quotas are exactly that, a regulatory mechanism.' However, an even better approach could be to create a supportive environment for women's leadership. Women's business communities have been working towards this goal.
The media often discusses women's entrepreneurship and management practices by comparing them unfavourably to those of men. It is therefore necessary for female high achievers to share their stories and advice to empower younger women to aspire for success.
'Our analysis reveals a stronger focus on building human capital — as opposed to countering gender stereotypes and discrimination — in the discussion of women's achievement,' conclude Voronkova and Rozhdestvenskaya. Most respondents prioritise professionalism and recognition from colleagues. In contrast, fighting gender stereotypes is perceived as a more time- and resource-consuming endeavour. This, however, does not mean that it is not worth striving for.