These Great Female Leaders are Spearheading Their Organization’s Evolution

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  • February 21, 2018

In virtually every business sector, great female leaders are at the forefront of groundbreaking organizational change. Women bring much-needed ideas, philosophies, and perspectives into boardrooms. In fact, a survey of 400 California-based companies found that median returns on assets and equity were 74 percent higher among companies with more women in leadership positions. As woman leaders across the country demonstrate, however, higher returns are just one benefit of great female leadership.

Rachel Williams, Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion at StubHub and former Head of Corporate Recruiting, Diversity, & Inclusion at Yelp

After joining Yelp in 2014, Rachel Williams led a major shift in how the organization approached diversity and inclusion. As the former head of corporate recruiting, diversity, and inclusion, Williams shifted Yelp’s organizational focus from diversity to inclusion. “We’re dealing with human beings,” Williams told the blog Tech Inclusion in 2017. “It can’t just be about the numbers. It can’t just be about the data. We know who’s not in the room. It’s pretty obvious. So let’s go about changing our hearts and minds to receive and welcome them first.”

Of course, creating a culture of inclusion from the bottom up was no easy task. Williams deployed a multi-pronged approach, starting with emotional intelligence (EQ) training for all Yelp managers. The goal was to boost empathy, a core component of a culture of inclusiveness. Williams also noted the importance of being transparent about the organization’s inclusivity goals, as well as its challenges and opportunities. Yelp outlined its goals to boost inclusivity in meetings, recruiting materials, and communications from leadership, Williams wrote in the Harvard Business Review. Those goals were also reflected in expanded recruiting programs and efforts to do “more to convince the people who have been offered a job to take it.”

The result of shifting Yelp’s focus from diversity to inclusivity? More diversity. When Williams joined the company in 2014, 10 percent of Yelp’s engineers were female, 7 percent of employees were hispanic, and 4 percent were black. By the end of 2018 when she left Yelp to join StubHub as its global head of diversity and inclusion, 18 percent of technical positions were filled by women, 10 percent of employees were hispanic, and 6 percent were black.

Reshma Saujani, Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code

Reshma Saujani founded the nonprofit tech organization Girls Who Code in 2012, based on the philosophy that “you cannot be what you cannot see.” The cultural image of the coder as a “boy in a hoodie in a basement alone” isn’t one that most girls can relate to, Saujani said. Her goal isn’t merely to teach girls to code—it’s to change how young girls see themselves and how society sees them. Saujani built Girls Who Code to attack the cultural and technical hurdles that prevent young women from pursuing careers in tech.

Saujani’s first goal—to change cultural perceptions about women in tech—isn’t an easy task. But it’s an important one. In the The Female Vision, authors Sally Helgesen and Julie Johnson explain how perceptions shape opportunities for women, writing, “We make our vision tangible by acting on what we see. Our actions provide the link between what we see and what we achieve in the world. When we don’t have the opportunity to act on our perceptions, our true potential to contribute remains locked inside ourselves.” When this happens, things that are supposed to be a source of power—in this case, personal computers and coding—become a source of frustration.

Saujani has pioneered a multi-step approach to curb the frustration that Helgesen and Johnson describe. She recently launched a book series called Girls Who Code: Learn to Code and Change the World to help girls envision themselves in computer engineering. “One of the best ways to spark girls[’] interest is to share stories of girls who look like them. So, we created these five characters—Lucy, Maya, Sophie, Erin, and Leila—that represent the diversity and range of backgrounds and interests of our girls who code,” Saujani told the School Library Journal. The nonprofit also holds regular training sessions, meetings, and courses to help expose young girls to coding at early age—which is another key component of closing the tech gender gap.

Saujani and Girls Who Code have made impressive progress in the nonprofit’s first five years. The group went from 20 members in New York City in 2012 to more than 40,000 members in all 50 states in 2017. In the process, Girls Who Code is changing cultural perceptions about the role of women in computer engineering and the tech sector—one girl at a time.

Dolores Tersigni, Chief People Officer at Headspace

As vice president of talent at Netflix, Dolores Tersigni helped build an award-winning original content division—that now oversees an $8 billion production budget—from the ground up. After joining the startup meditation app Headspace as its chief people officer in August 2017, Tersigni’s unique approach to blending corporate recruitment, culture, and vision into a cohesive organizational structure has come into sharper focus.

Headspace is built to foster a culture of mindfulness, and Tersigni told the blog TechCrunch that her first challenge would be to “bring the culture to life” at an organizational level. This means figuring out how to get everyone in the company to “speak the same language,” and how to “recruit and retain talent against those values and behaviors.” Similar to her time at Netflix, Tersigni has had to start from scratch.

Tersigni views her primary role as helping a startup transition into a large organization. “In any startup in the initial phases, it’s all hands on deck and everyone does everything. As you start to mature, it gets more complex, and you create more functions, your roles are more and more defined,” Tersigni told TechCrunch. As team members ponder their career progressions, it’s up to Tersigni to create a roadmap andultimately—to define success. In the initial phases, that means getting a lot of feedback about what employees enjoy about their jobs and what they aspire to be.

Looking to the Future of Great Female Leaders

Rachel Williams, Reshma Saujani, and Dolores Tersigni are just a few examples of great female leaders at the forefront of organizational changes. From cultivating an organizational culture of inclusiveness to changing cultural perceptions about gender and diversity to pioneering a visionary approach to organizational structuring, women are changing business as usual—for the better.

However, the stats show that women in general still face an uphill battle in achieving leadership roles. According to the Center for American Progress, women make up 47 percent of the U.S. labor force but only account for 25 percent of executive- and senior-level positions. Additionally, women hold just 20 percent of board seats, and only 6 percent of CEOs are women. Now is the time for more organizations to stand up and take steps toward welcoming more women into leadership positions.

Image credit: Photo by G. Crescoli on Unsplash

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