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Recognize the rising tide of female entrepreneurs

women business leader © Sergey Nivens - iStock.com

I’ve had the great fortune of spending more than 20 years in business education. As a faculty member at Emory, Virginia, Harvard and Tulane I’ve been able to keep up with various trends.

I’ve seen two important patterns of late and both hold particular value for women in the workplace.

For starters, let’s look at where future business leaders are driving their careers. More and more MBAs take jobs with small businesses. Just 10 years ago this would have been extremely uncommon. They may still cut their teeth with major companies, but they are increasingly clear with intentions to start a business or work for small, values-based startups.

This phenomenon goes hand-in-hand with new roles of women in leadership.

We’ve all taken note of magazine “top 100” lists. They tout the top, most successful or most entrepreneurial women in business.

Organizations like Catalyst monitor and publish information on executive women and the number of women on corporate boards. There is more visibility and attention given to women who assume executive and CEO positions than ever before.

But despite this attention, a woman in the C-suite is considered the exception in American business. A female executive is still an anomaly and, as such, the appointment of a woman to a position of power gets noticed.

A man who ascends to the top of an organization does not garner the same attention. It’s just more commonplace.

Try the theory yourself. Can you name the companies (no Googling, please) these women work for?

Marissa Mayer?

Sheryl Sandburg?

Indra Nooyi?

Meg Whitman?

You probably got at least three of the four. Mayer (Yahoo!), Sandburg (Facebook), Nooyi (Pepsico) and Whitman (HP) are often in the media spotlight.

Now for the male CEOs…

John Watson?

Randall Stephenson?

Michael Corbat?

They are the CEOs of Cheveron, AT&T and Citigroup, respectively. Note each of these companies have more economic impact than any organization headed by the aforementioned women.

This does not discount the significance of these female leaders, but it does show how they are favored in popular discussion.

But this is not the end of the story.

Several years ago a colleague and I examined the experiences of newly appointed female CEOs. We were interested in the reactions on Wall Street when a woman is appointed Chief Executive. Much to our chagrin, our research revealed that when a woman ascends to a CEO position, within a day of the announcement, the company’s stock price drops significantly more than when a male CEO takes the helm.

The traditional corporate environment continues to pose challenges to women’s success. But why?

Maybe it’s pattern recognition.

Research shows that, over time, humans begin to recognize certain patterns as the norm. Anything that deviates from the pattern is an anomaly. Furthermore, we begin to see anomalies – anything­­ different or strange – as uncomfortable and risky.

If the historical pattern has been that a successful businessperson is a white male over 6 feet tall with a full head of hair (or completely bald), then any woman represents an uncomfortable deviation. She may be perceived as a risk.

Along with the trend of MBAs and small business careers, I notice more women engaging in entrepreneurial purists.

A recent Forbes magazine article: “Entrepreneurship is the New Women’s Movement,” says women are expected to create more than half of small business jobs by 2018. Women-owned businesses created just 16 percent of similar jobs in 2010.

From 16 percent to 50 percent in less than a decade…This is a meteoric rise.

Organizations must fundamentally re-think their value propositions in order to capitalize on the growing trend of women and entrepreneurship.

First, big business must reconsider its approach to talent management and development if they are to sustain themselves. With more women choosing entrepreneurship, big business runs the risk of a dearth of top talent in an increasingly competitive global economic environment.

Likewise, as feeders into big business, business schools must rethink their approach to attracting the best and brightest prospective MBAs. Our curriculum must do more than pay lip service to entrepreneurship. We must build a bevy of opportunities to prepare people for the world of small business and start-ups.

Finally, we must create an environment that recognizes and values the characteristics, capabilities, and competence of women in business.

Women are not better leaders than men, just as men are not better leaders than women. The natural tendencies and strengths of both men and women complement one another. Until we create institutions that recognize that complementarity we will fall further and further behind on the world stage.

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