The bias that men are better risk takers than women has finally been dispelled. A new study on
gender and risk taking (Journal of Business Research) shows that women ascending to the
executive suite must take more risks – and do so naturally – because undertaking smart risks is
the most meaningful stepping stone. There are, however, consequences as a result of risks
women take to get to higher level positions. This has certainly been the case in my career in
male dominated industries, where to advance and be taken seriously I had to assert myself and
take calculated risks. Over time, I found that risk taking was the most effective means of
increasing my visibility and credibility, but it’s not easy. In our society, women are conditioned to
let others speak for them and take their ideas as their own. This causes women to second
guess themselves and their decision making. Becoming adept at smart risk taking is essential
for career growth.. Here are some of the strategies I put to the test.

Signature Characteristics
Before taking on a new role and/or during the interview process, perform an audit of your
personal and professional brand. What are the signature characteristics that convey your
identity and uniqueness, such as transformative leadership, emotional intelligence, financial
savvy, and ability to lead teams. Each should be consistently visible – including your digital
footprint – and demonstrable so you can show your prowess in each area of expertise.
Know The Political LandscapeMany women shy away from internal politics and hope their great work will speak for itself.

Unfortunately, women must get more comfortable with the political environment and how to
navigate it. Before joining an organization, do your research in identifying the people – both
peers and senior leaders who are in the power seats. You’ll need to foster relationships with
them to get noticed and develop allyship by finding ways to help them so they will be more open
minded in helping you.

Gain Confidence In The Business
As with any leadership role, you have to show tangible results to prove your business savvy and
knowledge. Think about products or service offerings which address an unfulfilled customer
need. Identify untapped profit centers. Find important cost-saving measures. Immerse yourself
in the dynamics of the business; read everything you can and schedule appointments to meet
and get to know the power players to show your interest and commitment to understanding all
aspects of the business and how they affect each other.

Invest In Leadership Development
Men never hesitate to invest in relationship or leadership development activities, especially if
they think they will benefit from it. Women need to do the same. It starts with believing you are a
leader and then investing in yourself to refine those skills. Ask for the support to improve your
skills and don’t shy away from the unknown. Find organizations that provide you a critical
network to broaden your contacts and skillset. Look for high quality leadership development
opportunities and prioritize them. Constantly challenge yourself to evolve your leadership style.

Be A Thought Partner
Women’s voices can get muted in the corporate environment, so find your voice and be willing
to present ideas and execute them.This may feel scary, so start with smaller things that could
have an impact; don’t let initial hesitation or pushback stop you. Think of where you can add
value to the company culture or generate income on a smaller scale.Collaborate with another
part of the business to achieve a collective goal and take credit for your part.

Take Up Space
Women often come into meetings and shrink. They find the least obtrusive seat and they don’t
position themselves next to power players. Men make themselves seen and heard; they literally
stretch out and occupy physical space. I used to attend meetings with piles of reports, my
computer and my notebook, which entitled me to take up more physical space wherever I sat. I
also do breathing exercises before entering an important meeting or giving an important
presentation. Amy Cuddy calls this “power posing” and talks about it in her noteworthy TED

In addition to taking space, come prepared by reviewing meeting agendas beforehand; this
allows you to have a course of action. You’ll want to contribute to the discussion by requesting
additional agenda items, asking pointed questions, presenting new ideas or expressing a “next
step” when closing comments are requested.

Develop Ideas That Move The Needle
Risks worth taking are ideas with important business value – those attached to income
generation, something that shifts the culture and matters to your workforce or major cost
savings. Present and execute your ideas with extra confidence, making sure that you’ve
checked all of the boxes so you’re prepared to field questions and be challenged. Call on your
allies and ask for help to achieve your goals.

Leverage EQ
Women have exceptional emotional intelligence and it’s important to approach risk taking based
on one’s confidence level and state of mind. Leverage your ability to understand where
someone might be coming from and act with compassion. Small acts of kindness and
consideration will always pay back. Be available to hear others; points of view and involve others in the most important projects you are working on. Multiple smart heads make for a stronger, more dynamic result.

Test The Waters
Most of the ideas I wanted to introduce I initially presented lightly as a means of testing the
waters. The minute I got a little rejection or could sense fear around making a change, I went
back to the drawing board to reshape it so that it would seem different and more appealing.
For example, I had an idea to introduce client satisfaction interviews as a way of building client
relationships. I knew that in business and marketing, paying homage to clients and listening is a
primary way of building long term business. Our company’s partner-oriented management
structure was against this sort of thing. Although I went back multiple times to leadership with
this concept, I couldn’t get it approved.

Finally, I repositioned the idea as a Client Listening initiative – basically altering the semantics.
This attracted the chairman’s attention. We implemented the program which gave the chairman
a front row seat to over fifty client interactions annually. We were able to understand any client
concerns, listen for new opportunities, and put forward the expertise of the entire organization..
The new fangled Client Listening program changed how we interacted with our clients and had
significant bottom line benefits. The chairman had a better understanding of client expectations
and needs, and in the process, he saw me in action.


  • Meg Sullivan is Founder and CEO, The Quorum Initiative, a global women’s leadership organization designed to foster change and advance women to executive roles. Quorum’s mission is to create a direct pathway to leadership and exert more influence in business by investing in and funding women-owned businesses. Ms. Sullivan is an Aspen Institute First Fellow, a group of individuals who represent the cutting edge of corporate social innovation.