No Longer Just a Man’s World – How Female Business Leaders Rise

When more than 100 female executives from five different nations reflect on their way to the top, the results are as multifaceted as they are inspiring.

What do women in top executive positions in different countries have in common and what makes them different? This question was central to my research, when I talked to 110 executives from Russia, China, Japan, France and Germany. Through in-depth interviews, these female bosses provided personal insights into their successful career paths. The results hope to give female managers and specialists inspiration for their own career strategies. Also, they provide companies and universities insights into questions relating to management and leadership.

The five leading economies selected for this study represent the top, middle and bottom segments of global rankings for women’s participation in top management. My goal was to find out how top women managers strategically plan their career paths, how they seize and expand opportunities, which techniques they use to overcome barriers and how they lead themselves in order to finally move up to upper management and establish themselves there. Another goal of mine was to shed light on how the external environment serves to promote a woman’s career, and to what extent female executives build their corporate careers in an autonomous fashion and without reference to societal pressures.

The “Ideal” Top Female Manager

The interviewed women share several characteristics. From an early age, these top female executives evince a desire to succeed – and this desire is intense. The ideal-typical female top manager pursues her management career unperturbed by her social environment and by prevailing norms. She is unaffected by the opinions of others, not afraid of conflict and takes a sporting attitude to competition. Other roles, including that of being a mother, are subordinate to the wish to be, first and foremost, an executive.

The ideal-typical female executive starts her management journey with in-depth training, often at an elite university, and develops her management skills in a targeted manner. She begins early on in her career to give thought to her personal management style, and one outward sign of this conscious career planning is the way in which she rapidly assumes leadership responsibility. She actively seeks support, engages in networking, and consults mentors and coaches.

“The top female manager strives for autonomy and power, with the aim of having a positive impact on the company.”

These women do not wait for the corporate landscape to change. They choose their companies carefully and go where they see the best opportunities. Challenges are welcomed and setbacks are used as opportunities to learn. A high degree of flexibility and a willingness to embrace change help the ideal-typical female top manager. The top female manager strives for autonomy and power, with the aim of having a positive impact on the company, and is very committed to her employees. She aims to be a role model, is highly motivated and displays solidarity towards other women.

International Differences

What sets top female managers from Russia, China, France, Japan and Germany apart from other women? To find out, I examined the hallmark characteristics of the interviewed women’s career paths, their personalities and their recipes for success within the contexts of their particular environments:

The Chinese women in senior management are characterized by pronounced flexibility in terms of both line of work and location. Their two most outstanding qualities, compared to the other groups surveyed, are their international business expertise and their global mindset, which enable them to move between cultures with relative ease. With positive curiosity, the Chinese women look for “jewels” in both their own culture and foreign cultures, and combine their skills to create an intercultural leadership style. Chinese women executive’s leadership style is team-oriented with some authoritarian components, depending on the situation.

The French female top executives impress with their intellectuality and through a powerful personal presence, which they use strategically in order to convince others in the companies. They have a strong ability to assert themselves, which they consciously use against the background of rights that have been won for women in their country and persistent resistance to change. The mastery of their very own country-specific social and cultural codes and the search for a female French identity as an executive accompanies them on their successful careers. They live in solidarity with women while at the same time encountering some obstructive rivalries between female colleagues. Their networks and connections to mentors are strong; many of them go deep into the inner circles of the French elite and power brokers.

The Japanese top women managers are the exceptions in their society. They are extraordinary conquerors of the system because they have managed to free themselves from restrictive social norms to make their way to the top of multinational and Japanese companies. The most important quality for their success is early awareness of career orientation. The Japanese women lead in a team-oriented manner and define themselves as executives through the support and success of their employees.

The German top women managers are shaping strategists in the midst of men’s clubs and social expectations of motherhood. In this research, they showed themselves to be outstanding in managing transformation processes in companies. They are change managers. Their careers only take off after a start-up phase and after they leave their comfort zone. Success comes by overcoming self-concerns and achieving visibility through large projects.

The Russian female top executives are extremely flexible and willing to take risks on their way to the top. Routine is rejected, for them the work should bring variety. It is important for them to gain autonomy coupled with high positions. Russian female top executives want power for shaping processes and decision-making for the benefit of the company. They also cultivate their femininity as executives, and often strategically use it as a weapon against male colleagues. Russian top women managers have visionary skills that enable them to inspire employees to embrace change.

Why I Pursued This Research

My research is designed to offer suggestions, provide encouragement, and open up new vistas for personal development. It also calls for more solidarity among female managers. The outcome offers men a chance to gain a better understanding of the female perspective and, in turn, to create a better corporate environment for their female employees, for their daughters and indeed for all women: one in which every talented employee is given an equal chance.

For many years I have been supporting successful women (and men) in their careers. It is a source of great fulfilment to me to witness how they grow and achieve excellence as a result of our work together. As one of my interviewees said: “For the talented woman, the sky’s the limit. You need a strong will to conquer it.”

[Title Image via Getty Images]

Bettina Al-Sadik-Lowinski

Dr. Bettina-Al-Sadik-Lowinski is a researcher, author and certified international mentor-coach (MCC). Following a long management career in multinational companies, she has worked as an international executive coach and expert on diversity in Germany, France, Japan and China. In 2014 she founded the Global Women Career Lab, a worldwide research and training initiative for women in leadership positions. Originally from Germany, Dr. Al-Sadik-Lowinski currently lives in Paris, France with her husband and children.

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