Fortune magazine reported that in 2023, women CEOs run more than 10% of companies for the first time. And in senior executive positions overall, women hold just 35% compared with 65% of men. These statistics reflect a significant disparity in spite of the fact that women account for over half of the American workforce.
It’s no wonder, then, that many women decide to build up their own success through entrepreneurship. Today, women make up about 40% of business start-ups. According to SCORE, women are setting up shop to be their own boss, to ditch corporate America, to pursue their passion, or for greater financial security. In other words, women are stepping up to fulfill their destinies. And, they’re doing it often with greater family obligations and less investment capital than their male counterparts.
This month as we celebrate Women’s History Month, I reflect back on the smart, strong, resilient, and barrier-breaking female family members, business leaders, career mentors, and peers who have empowered my own journey through advertising agency executive leadership and ownership over the past 30 years. And these bits of wisdom are what I try to pass along to the amazing, talented women who are rising into business leadership now.
STOP APOLOGIZING. One of the first issues I address when bringing on a new female staff member is to retrain them to not apologize so often and for so much. Apologizing can be a good thing—a sign that a woman is empathetic and has strong social skills. But saying “sorry” happens way too much with women in business. It happens when there’s no actual reason to be sorry, or simply apologizing too often. It undermines confidence and respect not just for the person, but for the company or idea she represents.
SPEAK YOUR MIND. I can only imagine how many great ideas have never been put into action simply because they weren’t shared. Sometimes, imposter syndrome starts to creep in and insecurity undermines brilliance. There is room at the table for your idea. You’ve gotten where you are because of your contributions. Your skills, talents, and ideas. When you speak up, you reflect honesty, confidence, and intelligence.
SHOW SOLIDARITY. When women support each other, fantastic things happen. It’s important to develop connections with peers in your industry. When women help women, networks take shape, mentorships form, understanding deepens, confidence is boosted, and opportunities open up. A common style of female leadership includes the qualities of empathy, inclusivity, collaboration, and transformation. Why not tap into that?
STEP UP. Will you recognize opportunity when it presents itself? Each day is a new chance to take charge of a thought, idea, project, problem, or action. See something that can be done better? Fix it. Recommend change. Be proactive. Step up — every day. No matter your job, you can demonstrate leadership. Decision-makers are watching.
SLOW DOWN. This just may be the hardest part of business entrepreneurship or mission-building. There is always more to be done. Always more that may benefit from your help, guidance, or talent. Always another client problem to solve. And if you’re a problem solver, it can be a bit like fuel being dumped on a fire. At some point, however, it is important to slow down. Take time off. Regroup. Reenergize. And perhaps most importantly, learn to say, “No.” Maintaining the work-life balance feeds your peace of mind and helps to avoid burnout.
As a woman, building a career has its twists and turns. Many challenges face us: unconscious bias, unfair expectations, unequal pay, limited opportunities, and even harassment. But, by projecting confidence, finding your tribe, building experience, being ready for opportunity when it comes, and being mindful of balance in your life, you can overcome the inevitable challenges of being a woman in business. Connecting rivet by rivet, I hope you find you can soar.
Wendy Payton is founder and president of Rivet Brands. She’s spent most of the past 30 years as an ad agency owner and executive, mentoring women in marketing and positioning client brands for success. Learn more at rivetingbrands.com.