The first female CEO in the history of modern business was probably Anna Bissell, a Canadian whose husband invented the modern carpet sweeper in 1876. Anna was the company’s top salesperson, and when her husband died of pneumonia in 1889, she took over as CEO.
With five children in her care, Anna Bissell vigorously defended the company’s legal patents as she moved its products into the international market. By the dawn of the 20th century, Bissell, Inc. was more successful than any of its competitors. Queen Victoria herself was enamoured with Bissell carpet sweeper, and regularly asked for the carpets at Buckingham Palace to be “Bisselled.”
But it wasn’t just the financial growth of the company that made Anna’s tenure as CEO notable. As chairman of the board, she brought forth progressive internal policies that were rare in those days, including pension plans and worker’s compensation. She was actively involved in numerous advocacy organisations for women and immigrants, including Zonta International, Bissell House, and the Blodgett Home for Children. She was a founding member of the Ladies Literary Club, and the only female member of the U.S. National Hardware Men’s Association.
What can Anna Bissell tell us about modern business?
There is growing evidence that female leadership is a boon for business, and that organisations with a stronger female presence at the executive level will see tangible gains in performance.
A 2016 study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics surveyed nearly 22,000 companies in 91 countries, and found positive correlations between corporate performance and the presence of female leadership. For example, companies whose senior leadership comprised of 30% women experienced a 15% increase in net profit over companies who had no female leaders.
Such performance gains, the study suggests, could be attributed to a greater diversity of skillsets in companies with more female leaders, or to the absence of gender-based discrimination that might block better candidates from being hired or promoted.
From a recruitment and talent management point of view, the rise of female leadership has a lot to teach us about the cultures, attitudes, and analytical skills that drive better performance. We keep hearing that success in business is increasingly linked to work cultures that 1) encourage innovation and 2) help employees achieve greater overall balance in their lives. It’s also been shown (in a global report by Unilever, for example) that vast numbers of people prefer to support businesses with strong environmental principles. So how does female leadership help build these organisational traits?
Questions of neurochemistry
It’s tough to quantify the differences in female and male brain chemistry, and to draw conclusions that apply to business. But researchers are trying, and the results are worth a look.
- A University of Pennsylvania study found “greater connectivity from front to back and within one hemisphere in males, suggesting their brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action. In contrast, in females, the wiring goes between the left and right hemispheres, suggesting that they facilitate communication between the analytical and intuition.”
- A University of California study found that women, on average, have ten times the amount of white matter in their brains. Gray matter is effectively the ability to process information. White matter is the ability to draw connections between information processing centres in the brain.
The California study notes that despite common differences, brain designs are highly unique regardless of sex. It concludes that “no single neuroanatomical structure determines general intelligence and that different types of brain designs are capable of producing equivalent intellectual performance.”
That said, it seems possible that one advantage of a stronger female leadership presence is a stronger ability to discover unseen connections and pain points within the organisational framework.
Where are things headed?
Weber Shandwick’s 2016 Gender Forward Pioneer (GFP) Index measured the presence of female executives at Fortune 500 companies. It found that women account for 10.9% of senior executive positions, but that 40% of Fortune 500 companies did not have any women in a senior leadership roles. The study also found that Fortune’s “Most Admired” companies had an average of 17% female senior leadership, while companies that didn’t make the “admired” list had an average of 8% female senior leadership.
Finding the right fit for any position, within any organisation, is a highly individual process. Organisations themselves are rather like human brains – each one is a unique architecture with different strengths and weaknesses. What’s clear is that businesses need a diverse, flexible, and creative vision if they want to compete on a global scale. Anna Bissell provided this to her company at a time when it was practically unheard of. Today, more companies are beginning to see what they have to gain by developing a stronger female leadership – and what they have to lose if they don’t.
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