Image by Christa Neu
It’s an extraordinarily different business world for women today than it was 50 or even 25 years ago. At one time, a woman in a leadership role was rare. Katherine Graham, the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, took the helm as CEO of the Washington Post in 1972. Today, there are 41 women as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and more waiting in the wings. Clearly, women leaders in business are no longer an aberration. And while there is further to go in achieving gender parity, we are normalizing the idea of female business leaders.
There is a certain type of pressure that comes with being the first woman to do anything. On the one hand, people are pinning their expectations on you (whether you like it or not) and, on the other hand, people are skeptical because of your gender. My answer to that is excellence rules out.
It’s our responsibility as a college to support young women as they begin their business careers. We must provide successful female role models and say: “Yes, this is a possibility. This is how you can make your mark. This is how you can blaze your career path, using tools you may not have considered.”
Furthermore, it is the collective responsibility of the business community to create an inclusive environment and to examine where the default for excellence lies. Just as important, managers need to foster opportunities for women. If you see women with particular skills, shine a light on them, offer them career advancement and nurture career progression.
Corporations also have to focus on our leaky pipe problem. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2019, women made up the majority of the American financial services workforce, yet less than a quarter of them were in senior leadership positions. One reason that has been suggested for this statistic is women often drop out of the workforce to start families just as they are rising up through the managerial ranks. If companies can find the will and creativity to make the necessary adjustments, we can stop the talent drain and propel more women to the top.
There is a rising trend of women graduating with business degrees and participating in MBA programs. That comes from a concentrated effort that has been building since Lehigh became co-educational 50 years ago during the second wave of feminism.
I am constantly amazed at the young women I meet here at Lehigh. They are intelligent, assertive and forthright. They don’t step back. They don’t cower. They don’t wait to be asked. They just get out there and do it.
Women are not an aberration. The future is theirs.
Georgette Chapman Phillips
The Kevin L. and Lisa A. Clayton Dean of the College of Business
Follow Dean Phillips on Twitter @LehighBizDean.
Listen to the Dean's podcast on this topic.