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Characteristics of Successful Women in Business Leadership

Mary MacLean Hayes, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


The gender landscape of the corporate world has changed over the last 20 years. In 1995, there were no women in the top leadership role of any Fortune 500 company compared to 5.4% held by women today (Pew Research, 2017). Every time a woman is chosen for a role as a corporate officer in the c-suite it is big news. The c-suite is a group of corporate officers whose titles usually start with the letter "C" (i.e., COO, CEO, CFO, and CTO). The media does not often lead the story on her qualifications for the job but her demographic characteristics. These types of articles spurred my interest in learning more about leadership and why the gender of the leader matters. The leadership characteristics, which a leader possesses, make the difference in ability, not any given demographic characteristic. The purpose of this study was to explore the leadership characteristics of women leaders in business and to understand the commonalities between the women interviewed. I sought to learn about the journeys of women leaders to the corporate level of leadership. I delved into their education, their early leadership tendencies, and their characteristics that they believe has made them successful. I purposefully chose women who held corporate level titles (i.e., CEO, CFO, COO, CTO, and CHRO) and other leadership roles like Director, President, Senior Vice President, and Vice President. In coding the participants' interview transcripts and reviewing field notes, there were seven recurring themes, some with sub-themes. The first characteristic theme is self-awareness, which comes from internal self-reflection around what these women excel at, what these women struggle with, and what they are willing to accept as risk. The theme of survival work ethic describes how these women put in the long hours and personally sacrificed to get the job done. Educational experiences and learning is the next theme. Learning was a crucial component to their success but not just from formal education. The next theme to emerge from the interviews with these 15 women leaders was relationships. Each respondent's leadership journey included key relationships with family members, leaders, direct reports, and peers.

Subject Area

Business administration|Behavioral psychology|Educational leadership|Womens studies|Personality psychology

Recommended Citation

Hayes, Mary MacLean, "Characteristics of Successful Women in Business Leadership" (2018). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI10982809.