Connect with us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter Join our LinkedIn Group Subscribe to us on YouTube Share with us on Google+ Subscribe to our RSS feed

April 02, 2011

Top Desk

Women & Leadership: The Equation for Success

by Miriam Muléy, CEO, Author of The 85% Niche

“Women make up half of the human resources available. ... If that half is not being channeled into the economy and not being made part of decision-making processes, then economic potential is bound to suffer. As business leaders and policymakers seek to navigate their way through the current crisis, they need the talents of both women and men more than ever to come up with the best solutions.”
—Saadia Zahidi, Head, Women Leaders and Gender Parity Programme, World Economic Forum

Now is an important time to celebrate the accomplishments and advances made by women across America. It is also an opportunity for direct selling leaders to reflect on the growing economic buying power, the enduring leadership qualities and the marketplace significance of women. An extensive body of research shows that women make significant and proven contributions to business and economic growth.

› Women generate $5 trillion in buying power and account for 85 percent of all consumer purchases, including everything from vehicles to health care:

  • 91% of new homes
  • 66% of personal computers
  • 92% of vacations
  • 80% of healthcare decisions
  • 85% of all new cars and trucks
  • 89% of bank accounts
  • 93% of all OTC pharmaceuticals

› Women have made significant strides in education—exceeding male undergraduate and graduate student attainment levels in most categories—and are awarded:

  • 57% of all bachelor’s degrees
  • 55% of all master’s degrees
  • 50% of all law school degrees
  • 42% of all medical degrees
  • 42% of all Ph.D.s

› Women drive the entrepreneurial engine of America and, with $1.9 trillion in gross sales receipts, they are essential to business—as vendors, suppliers of your products and services and role models in the community.

They employ 18.5 million workers—more than the Fortune 500 combined.

They own 10.4 million companies in the United States, or 41 percent of all firms.

A woman opens a business in the United States every 30 seconds.

Yet, despite this compelling data, women are still nearly invisible at the senior management and board director levels of Fortune 500 companies and direct selling firms. This is particularly challenging, given that women account for more than 80 percent of all distributors within direct selling. Women of color are leading in even fewer numbers.

A Corporate View of Women and Leadership in Direct Selling

Women are well represented in entry- and mid-level positions in most companies; however, equality appears out of reach, given the low representation in senior executive roles. In fact, women have made strikingly little progress in advancing to the boardrooms and executive suites within corporate America.

Today, women account for 18 percent of top leaders in Fortune 500 companies, and make 78.7 cents for every dollar earned by a man—a wage gap that continues to increase with age. Based on a sample of the top 17 publicly traded direct selling companies in America, a similar picture emerges within the direct selling industry:

Among the top 17 publicly traded direct selling companies, only one has a woman CEO.

Women account for 14 percent of all board directors within the top 17 publicly traded direct selling firms; only 13 of the 95 directors are women; 50 percent had no women board directors in governance roles.

Among the top 17 publicly traded direct selling companies, women constitute 13 percent of executive management teams. This compares to 16 percent women executive management team representation among Fortune 500 corporations.

Women of color directors represent only 2 percent of all direct selling board members; they account for only 2 percent of executive management teams in the industry.

The Benefits of Women in Leadership

Companies with women and diversity in top leadership positions have a competitive advantage over those that do not. Research shows that companies with women in senior executive positions strengthen relationships with customers and shareholders, become more profitable and gain a competitive edge over those without women at the top.

Catalyst, a leading nonprofit research organization working to build support for inclusive workplace environments, reported that companies with the largest representation of women board directors and corporate officers achieve, on average, a 35 percent higher return on equity and 34 percent higher total return to shareholders than those with low representation numbers. The power of diversity yields statistically stronger results than homogeneous teams.

In addition to the quantifiable benefits of harnessing the power of women in senior leadership, there are qualitative benefits, as well:

According to the Harvard Business Review, women’s “transformative” leadership style—making institutions more transparent, accountable and ethical—is more effective in leading modern organizations than men’s traditional “transactional” approach.

Women demonstrate “risk smart” leadership—women tend to include diverse viewpoints in decision making, have a broader conception of public policy, complete objectives and bring disenfranchised communities to the table when making decisions.

Given the high incidence of women distributors and customers within direct selling, women in leadership provide both a personal and professional knowledge of how to connect with these audiences.

10 Things Direct Sellers Can Do Now to Leverage the Leadership Power of Women


  1. Work Toward Increasing Women and Diversity in Your Employee and Distributor Teams.
    People with diverse ways of perceiving problems often devise better solutions for problems. Level 1 problems cannot be solved with Level 1 solutions; diversity provides a more dynamic and innovative approach to problem solving.
  2. Send a Message from the Top.
    Companies that achieve the greatest change in gender diversity and inclusion are those who benefited from the personal commitment of the CEO.
  3. Put More Women and Diverse Directors on Your Board.
    Board-ready women and diverse candidates are not difficult to find. A significant number serve in executive capacities in Fortune 1000 companies. Others run large nonprofit organizations, academic institutions and professional groups. Once engaged, your board will profit significantly from the experienced diverse voices of these leaders.
  4. Rethink Human Resources.
    Corporate HR policies often, inadvertently, create environments where diverse candidates who are starting their careers are not retained, or do not grow, develop and flourish into experienced leaders. Simple but effective work environment policies, such as flexible work arrangements, can have a dramatic impact on allowing women and diverse employees to achieve greater work/ life balance, thereby leading to higher levels of productivity, enthusiasm and brand ambassadorship for the company.
  5. Recruit with Diversity in Mind.
    Companies that make meaningful progress on training recruiters on the importance of diversity and/or who retain the services of diverse recruiting firms can make significant progress in creating a workforce that mirrors the marketplace.
  6. Make Mentoring a Priority.
    Mentoring programs can be powerful tools to nurture and develop talent. Helping teams to navigate through the choppy waters of politics and complicated operating systems will encourage them to remain motivated and on task.
  7. Retain Your Best Diverse Talent.
    Know what it takes to keep talented women, diverse candidates and distributors in your organization. Be flexible and create policies and programs that will address their needs. Oftentimes these programs (such as flexible work arrangements) are a benefit to all employees and not just to diverse candidates. 
  8. Measure Your Results.
    When companies put goals in writing and track their results, things get done. Direct sellers need to know where they stand in relation to their distributor, employee and board representation, and create benchmarks to track the proportion of diversity growth in the organization. This would include tracking pay levels of women versus men in comparable positions, attrition rates by gender and the ratio of diverse populations promoted, relative to those who are eligible for promotion. 
  9. Plan for Diversity.
    Succession planning is the best way to assure the optimal mix of backgrounds, experience, skills and perspectives on boards, management teams, employee ranks and distributor levels.
  10. Move Beyond Tokenism.
    The best performers build a critical mass of leaders across all levels of the organization and distributor workforce—not just at the entry level but throughout all key decision-making ranks.

Women + Leadership = Success

Encouraging the retention, development and advancement of women leaders and women of color leaders within the management and director ranks of direct selling companies not only promotes fairness, but also delivers a strong financial advantage. The changing demographics of America, the accelerated demands of business today and the unique leadership qualities of women make them the competitive drivers of success for decades to come.

[Sources: The 85% Niche, Inforum, Catalyst, The White House Project: Benchmarking Women’s Leadership, and Groundbreakers Report]

Miriam MuléyMiriam Muléy is CEO and author of The 85% Niche ( She is also Chair of the Direct Selling Women’s Alliance Diversity Center and President of the National Association of Business Women for Greater Detroit.