Throughout her long career, Maribeth Bearfield often found she was the only woman amid a sea of male executives. At times, it proved frustrating. “I have a strong voice and I have a loud voice, but I never really felt I was heard,” says Bearfield, who spent years in the financial services and high tech industries. “I’d say something and two minutes later someone else, a man, would say the same thing and it was received better.”
That all changed about three years ago when she joined Watertown-based child-care provider Bright Horizons as its chief human resources officer. It was the first time Bearfield found herself working for a company where women were the majority on the board of directors and executive committee. “When I’m at the executive table, we support each other and we give each other the opportunity to talk,” Bearfield says. “I’ve worked for some great men, too, who are very transparent and who have been great leaders. But when there’s a lot of women at the table, we have that support and maybe it’s that trust, too.”
Bearfield’s experience is no anomaly. Women — and men — report higher job satisfaction at women-led companies relative to male-led companies, according to a survey of nearly 60,000 workers in 43 countries by Peakon, an online platform that tracks employee engagement. Companies where women make up more than half the executive team scored higher in key areas as ranked by employees. The survey found: they feel more confident in their employers’ overall goals and strategies; they find communication to be more effective and the mission more clearly defined, in turn leading to a greater belief in the company’s product or service; and they report having more autonomy, specifically expressing satisfaction in work-from-home policies and less micromanagement.
But just having female bosses is not enough, notes Martha Doyle — the women need to be leaders who employees want to work for and emulate. Doyle is chief operating officer at EF Properties, the real estate arm of education and travel powerhouse EF Education First, which has its US headquarters in Cambridge. Doyle’s trajectory to the C-suite started 30 years ago when she became junior assistant to EF founder Bertil Hult, whose sons now run the multibillion-dollar family-owned company. Women make up the majority of staff and leadership at EF, and the executive leadership team has long been more than half female, Doyle says. “There was never a time where I didn’t feel both supported and inspired,” she says. “When I first started out, I didn’t know what I could be, but I saw there were smart and talented women in equal roles as men.”
Psychological research suggests that women tend to be more empathetic than men, which could account for the perception of different leadership styles based on gender. During his nearly 12 years at The Training Associates, a Westborough-based provider of learning and development consultants for IT, John Laverdure has seen a range of styles up close. His first boss, company founder Vic Melfa, focused more on metrics, Laverdure says, while Melfa’s daughter Maria, who took the reins as chief executive in 2015, prioritizes a fun and productive culture.
“It’s not that her father didn’t care about people, and it’s not that she doesn’t care about metrics, but that’s the direction they lean,” he says. The change “reduced rigidity, increased the sense of appreciation,” he says, and led to “feeling much more like you’re part of the success of the organization as opposed to a cog in the wheel.” But it’s the integrity of the company, not the gender of its leaders, that Laverdure says keeps him happy and committed.
Marit van Buuren, director of T cell immunology at Neon Therapeutics in Cambridge, didn’t think much about gender diversity at the top when she became the company’s 12th hire almost four years ago. But the women who make up half the leadership team and scientific groups have been integral in defining the inclusive culture at the company, which has a mothers’ room equipped with a fridge and two hospital-grade breast pumps to support nursing mothers when they return to work. When van Buuren had to travel to Europe for business shortly after she returned from maternity leave, Neon shipped her frozen milk back to Cambridge for her daughter, Sofia. “Because of this benefit I was able to breast-feed my daughter for a year, while continuing [to be] successful in my role,” says van Buuren, who is often the only woman in the room at external meetings with business and scientific leaders. “They’re very mindful that women get the opportunity to participate here.”
That holds true for Jessica Kohler as well. To Kohler, a senior scientist on van Buuren’s team, the culture at Neon Therapeutics sets a standard. “What I like [here] is that I never felt that you had to fight to have your voice heard,” she says. “I kind of take for granted that this is what high functioning should look like.”
Kohler made changes in her own leadership style last year after giving birth to her first child. “I was on maternity leave and I felt I had more empathy, I guess, even more than I had before,” she says. “I try to apply that even more [at work], and patience.” She feels she became a better manager to her team of two.
The Peakon study results don’t conclude whether women-led companies scored higher because women are in leadership, or because women are more likely to join companies that are already outperforming others in those key categories, notes Peakon cofounder Kasper Hulthin. Either way, he says, companies would be smart to invest in gender diversity in leadership. “This study shows that the way [women] communicate is perceived more positively by the organization,” he says. “More diverse leadership teams will make strategy more well-rounded for the whole organization and they would be better for the customer and the employees.”
Bearfield, of Bright Horizons, says workplaces that lack women in leadership roles must adapt, especially if they hope to attract younger talent, who, studies show, value inclusion and equality. Earlier in her career, Bearfield had female sponsors whom she credits for ensuring her career visibility and progression. She sees this on a broader scale at Bright Horizons, as it has become more deliberate about succession planning and career development for women.
“It’s not rocket science,” she says. “It really comes down to people want to be respected and want to love the work they do.”