What’s Gender Got to Do With It?

What’s Gender Got to Do With It?

On women, leadership, and Avon.

By Deborrah Himsel


Deborrah Himsel is an executive coach, speaker, and leadership consultant; she was VP of Global Organization Effectiveness at Avon Products from 1999 to 2005. From Beauty Queen: Inside the Reign of Avon’s Andrea Jung, copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St. Martin’s Press.

Avon Products Inc. has long been a learning laboratory for women and leadership. Few large, global organizations have had as many women in top positions as Avon. Fewer still have provided women with the opportunity to stretch their leadership muscles, free of the constraints that sometimes exist in male-dominated cultures.

Andrea Jung’s triumphs and challenges as CEO of Avon, too, are of particular relevance to women who occupy top corporate jobs. In many ways, Andrea was the quintessential female CEO. She found the sweet spot between the iron-maiden stereotype at one extreme and the maternal-leadership style at the other.

It is impossible to imagine a man leading Avon to such astonishing success as Andrea did. Her strategic insight and ability to motivate and inspire staff and female representatives around the world was extraordinary. It is also difficult to see a male CEO’s failings played out in the public and prolonged in the way that Andrea’s were.

A Queen, but Not a Queen Bee

In my interviews for Beauty Queen, many of the women I interviewed asked two questions that I’ve thought a lot about:

  • Did gender have anything to do with Andrea’s fall from grace?
  • Did Andrea’s ultimate bad end at Avon serve as a black mark for other aspiring female leaders?

To the former, I would say probably not. I think Andrea did receive more media criticism than a male leader would have in the same situation, but that may have been due to the amount of praise she received earlier for her role in Avon’s success. There is often a media backlash against people who have risen far and fast. In fact, Andrea’s gender probably bought her more time in the job than a man would have had, given the problems that surfaced during the last few years of her time at Avon. She was an iconic female leader heading a company whose customers were women, an inspirational as well as an aspirational figure. It was not easy for the board to push her out. It’s fair to say that it probably would have been easier for the board to get rid of a male leader in her position.

Regarding the second point, I don’t think her fall hurt other women leaders. If she had burned out during her first few years on the job, it might have been a problem. But her tremendous success for the majority of her time as CEO more than counteracted the effect of the mistakes she made at the end.

Andrea’s experience at Avon says a lot about other gender and leadership issues—ones that go beyond the old fears of glass ceilings and bias. I have had the opportunity to work with a wide variety of women leaders besides Andrea, including Karen Katen, former vice chairman of Pfizer; Susan Baer, former director of aviation for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; and Sheri McCoy, formerly of Johnson & Johnson and current Avon CEO. What I’ve learned is that gender is always an issue when it comes to leadership, but never in quite the same way. Each of the women I just mentioned brought different perspectives, experiences, and leadership styles to their jobs. Though their gender had an impact on their leadership approach and effectiveness, the impact was different for each of them. Baer strived to build a family-oriented work environment with a focus on the whole person. Katen was tough as nails in a budget meeting but was collegial in less structured business settings—she was happy to join co-workers for drinks after work.

I’m reminded of a book I read years ago in graduate school, Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s 1977 Men and Women of the Corporation, with its descriptions of various roles women assumed in the workplace: mother, seductress, pet, and iron maiden. While I’m sure that women do assume some of these roles now, just as they did then, I also believe it’s critical to take these gender-based descriptions with a grain of salt. Queen bee, for instance, recently reemerged as a popular term used to describe women leaders who are seen as imperious and absolute rulers.

Although I have called Andrea a beauty queen, I’ve done so because it was an apt description for her glamour and the industry she ruled, not because I found her to be a domineering boss. In fact, she was just the opposite in many ways. Not only wasn’t she bossy—she tried to serve as a role model for other women. She didn’t want them to be worker bees forever—she hoped to elevate them to leadership positions; the leadership-development program Andrea initiated at Avon was excellent. She helped shape the culture so that it was highly supportive of other women, modeling and endorsing behaviors that called for a work-life balance.

But Andrea was queenlike in certain ways, in that she carried herself with the grace and aura of a true lady. In fact, she was very much a modern-day, business equivalent of Queen Elizabeth I. Consider that both Queen Elizabeth and Andrea had clear, compelling visions—the queen for the power of England and Andrea for the power of Avon as a woman’s empowerment organization. Both Andrea and the queen created fierce loyalty among their employees and subjects in large part because they favored making requests rather than issuing commands. Both of them dressed to the nines and projected an aura that carried them forward. Both rose to power early in their careers, and both were skilled at making powerful, motivating speeches to rally their constituencies and launch bold strategies.

I find the parallels between the two women fascinating in large part because it helps us understand how the qualities that make women effective leaders are timeless. There are many books about the different leadership styles of queens: Catherine the Great, Queen Victoria, Queen Isabella of Spain. Some women like Andrea possess a royal aura that is by turns charming, mesmerizing, motivating, and inspiring. But this royal style is only one of many available to women leaders, and the environment at Avon allowed many different styles to flourish.

The Ideal of Equality and the Reality

I cannot envision an organization that is more receptive to women leaders than Avon. That said, I don’t want to give the false impression that Avon was or is a paradise for every woman leader. As we all know, bad bosses aren’t confined to one gender. Avon has had its share of less than stellar women managers, and they can make life difficult for both the men and the women with whom they work. A few women I interviewed were quick to remind me that sometimes policies related to gender were inconsistently applied and that inappropriate sexual advances occurred. One woman even related a story about her female manager giving her “the talk”—the lecture about how, at some point, she would have to choose between her career and her family.

What’s different about Avon, though, is that it was and remains the company for women, and since Andrea’s CEO appointment, it has been run by women. Before Andrea’s time, like a lot of other companies, it was slow to embrace the notion of gender equality. In the mid-1970s, the company appointed Pat Neighbors as its first female vice president. In one of her first executive staff meetings, she went from man to man at the table and complimented each of them on his tie, his shirt, his shoes, his hair. After she concluded her compliments, she noted that this was how each Avon male district manager began his meetings with female sales representatives.

A new era began when Jim Preston became CEO and made a commitment to name a woman CEO as his successor and also bring more women and minorities on board in executive positions. As a result, the company became known as a place where women could get ahead. Perhaps just as significantly, it began attracting what one former Avon woman executive termed “a special type of man.” These men didn’t feel threatened by women in power. In fact, they not only liked working for and with women but were committed to Avon’s mission of empowering women.

When Andrea became CEO, one of her goals was to make Avon a great place for working mothers, and she implemented flexible work schedules for both sexes that made it easier for parents to take care of their kids. While other organizations give a lot of lip service to being mom-friendly, it was often not reflected in their actual policies. Andrea modeled behaviors that didn’t just tolerate mothers but valued them.

There’s a story of the time Andrea was on a GE board conference call on her son’s birthday when her son came running into the room where she was talking and yelled, “This Scooby-Doo is the wrong color! I want the dark brown color, not the light brown color!” The board members heard his demand, and for years after that, they would ask Andrea, “So, dark or light brown Scooby-Doo?” Andrea made it clear that moms have responsibilities that they should not be embarrassed about or avoid because of work situations; moms were encouraged to leave meetings if they had a child’s event they wanted to attend.

Andrea’s fellow GE board member Shelly Lazarus, then CEO of Ogilvy Mather Worldwide, told a story that captures the attitude that Shelly, Andrea, and a relatively small number of other pioneering women fostered: “A woman confided to me about ‘sneaking out of the office’ to go to her child’s play, and I said, ‘Stop right there! I have never snuck out of any place. I walk right down the center hall, and if somebody doesn’t like it, too bad.’”

Avon wasn’t a perfect place for women, but it probably came closer than any other organization I had observed. People were conscious of gender equality and tried to live by it in all aspects of corporate life, whether it involved hiring decisions, pay, or work policies. That consciousness helped minimize bias and attracted both male and female managers who tried to treat people fairly. It also allowed women to lead authentically.


Most Read Features

The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.