The Lioness Factor

The Haas School’s Kellie McElhaney is studying companies investing in women globally.

Increasing the number of women business leaders is not just a women’s issue; it’s a matter of good business.


Two studies by Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on advancing women, found that Fortune 500 companies with more women in management or board positions financially outperform their peers—by between 33 percent to 66 percent, depending on the financial measure.


Kellie McElhaney, co-faculty director of the Haas School’s Center for Responsible Business, also believes women tend to lead more sustainably— financially, socially, and environmentally. Early results from a research project called “The Lioness Factor” that she has started are bearing that out.


McElhaney has teamed with undergrads Anjali Joy, BS 11 (Business and Econ.), and Poornima Muralidhar, BS 10 (Envir. Econ. and Policy), to write case studies on three companies—Gap, Goldman Sachs, and Nike— who are making big bets on investing in women globally.


“Our goal is to identify best practices to serve as a guide for other companies,” McElhaney explains. The project’s title came from Gap’s (PRODUCT)RED brand, which helps raise money to combat disease in Africa. When rapper Diddy was asked to help launch the brand’s ad campaign, he suggested recruiting “lionesses” instead. The campaign launched on Oprah, who sent web traffic skyrocketing.


The idea for McElhaney’s project came from an increasing number of companies focusing on gender equality in the developing world— which UNICEF has noted yields a “double dividend” of bettering the lives of both women and their families.


McElhaney’s early finding that women manage more sustainably follows other studies that have shown women are more concerned about corporate social responsibility and more driven by the desire to have a positive impact. The nonprofit sector is one place where women do just that, running about 60 percent of U.S. nonprofits. However, men lead the majority of larger nonprofits with budgets over $5 million.


Despite such disparities, women wield another kind of power that may ultimately help close the gender gap: the power of the purse. Women control $20 trillion in annual consumer spending globally, according to a 2009 Harvard Business Review article.


“That consumer power is far too critical for corporations to ignore,’” says McElhaney. “We are far past the point of gender equality being only about fairness. It is simply just good business, period.”



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