Q&A: Author Julia Boorstin on How We Can Learn from Women Leaders

By Ellevest Team

If you’ve ever had to schedule a cry at work, or changed your industry mid-career, or been too worried to admit what you don’t know in a meeting, or been the only person to point out a bad business practice at your company … Julia Boorstin wrote When Women Lead for you.

The book, which came out in October, is a corrective — where we’ve had bestsellers trumpeting the glorious genius of centuries of (male) titans of industry, she says, the literature on how women succeed has been … lacking. So over the past few years, she took up the challenge. When Women Lead charts the success against all odds — from the funding gap, to the lack of women’s health options, to the economic crises of the pandemic — of 60+ women leaders in business, politics, and beyond. It looks at how they succeeded, what they overcame — and how women can use those stories to reframe our own narratives for the better.

“I want women to see a roadmap for success in business, whether as a founder or just as someone navigating the business world, where they can be themselves and unlock their own leadership superpowers,” she told Ellevest when we sat down with her to discuss her findings. “We don’t have to try to fit ourselves into a box anymore. I want women to see the examples in the book like a mirror, to find these strengths in themselves.”

Keep reading to learn how. (Btw, Ellevest CEO and co-founder Sallie Krawcheck — and Ellevest as a company — are featured in When Women Lead, so you’ll spot a few references to that throughout the conversation.)

A photo of author Julia Boorstin in a round frame on a blue background surrounded by a bar chart, three women in profile, and a line graph. Collage.

Ellevest: Can you walk me through how you conceived the book? 

Julia: I’ve been a business reporter now for 22 years, first at Fortune Magazine, now at CNBC for the past 16 years. I’ve interviewed probably thousands of leaders over my career, and the vast majority of them have been white men. But in the past seven years or so, I started noticing more and more of them were women — particularly women entrepreneurs. And I was really impressed by these women, who were coming up with game-changing companies — companies that were reconsidering how to approach a business or an industry, and doing so with a very long-term view. I thought, These women are really looking at problem-solving differently, looking at business differently. 

The strategies women tend to deploy are incredibly valuable — not just for women, but for everyone

I was also seeing all of this data about how few women are in positions of power, and also how little access to capital female founders have. These women who have succeeded aren’t just exceptions to the rule — they’ve had to be exceptional to defy those odds. So I started off by wanting to tell these stories. 

Then from there, I realized that if I was going to declare that women leaders are exceptional, I better have the data to back it up. So I started digging into the research. I think I read over 300 academic studies — that was my pandemic project. And the research really showed that women tend to lead in certain ways. And the strategies women tend to deploy are incredibly valuable — not just for women, but for everyone. I really believe that we should all be studying and emulating the ways these women have been leading.

Yeah, that message seems particularly important, now that we’ve come to this period where we’re seeing all these major layoffs at major tech companies and start-ups. There’s this huge pressure to be profitable now — the piper must be paid. 

Yeah, it was really interesting to be reading about this in the context of this moment, when a lot of male founders have been able to keep raising money because of the assumption that they don’t really need to be profitable for a few years.

And in your book, you’re introducing all these women who had no choice but to be profitable from the start. 

Historically, women have had to do more with less. They’ve had to be scrappy, to figure out solutions and be more focused on profitability, because they didn’t have the same access as their male counterparts. So even though it’s horrible that they’ve had less access to capital, they’ve now built this muscle for scrappiness, which is going to serve them greatly right now, as they try to navigate these uncertain times. How women have always been leading — with a focus on profitability — is exactly what everyone’s gonna have to do right now. 

But I also think all the other things that women leaders have been more likely to do — leading with empathy, leading with vulnerability, inviting collaboration — these are things that are table stakes right now. Male leaders need to learn how to emulate women. You’re not gonna be able to motivate a team of dispersed workers who are scared and frustrated without empathy. 

Historically, women have had to do more with less. They’ve had to be scrappy

There’s something happening right now, with the economy being so unstable, with so much uncertainty. The reality is that we’re in a new phase where everyone has to be humble about what they don’t know. Because we’re all just figuring it out. And the people who are admitting what they don’t know, they’re the ones who are going to be more successful over the long run. And that’s what women do.

That’s actually a great segue: Who is this book for? There are plenty of lessons for women here; you summarize those takeaways in your epilogue. But then there are also parts where it sounds like you’re speaking not just to women, but to men. It’s even in the subtitle of the book: “How we can learn from them.” There’s such a huge component to gender equity that needs to come from men. There’s only so much women can do before men have to do their part and stand aside to some extent, right?

Look, I’m a journalist. I’ve always believed that you should show, not tell. I wanted to show the example of these amazing women, because there isn’t another book that really elevates the stories of diverse leaders leading in different ways. There are great books about male leaders, like Jim Collins’ Good to Great. But we haven’t had a book that really shows the story of phenomenal women.

It was also really important for me to show the data in a way that’s empowering, rather than depressing. Personally, I struggled with how to write about the double standards. I remember digging through this research every afternoon, after I was done with my day job, and I’d read a different part of a study like, Where do I even start with this? This data is so depressing. 

But then I started finding myself using this research in my own job. And I thought, Wait a second. There’s a way to take this massive, depressing information about all the ways women are judged harshly and use it as a tool for progress.

I really don’t think men understand all the double standards and biases and pattern-matching that are out there, or how seriously they’re missing out by not giving their money to women-run companies, by not promoting women, by not partnering with women. All this research argues that investing in and elevating women isn’t just a nice thing that men should be doing — it’s a financial imperative. If men want to make money, they need to study how women lead. They need to invest in women and learn from them. So I hope this book will be helpful for men to navigate this business landscape, as well. 

That tracks with what we’ve been saying here at Ellevest: that women’s financial health is an indicator of a society’s overall health

Yes, there is an economic imperative to have women succeed, because then the overall business will improve. At the same time, if you have women dropping out of the workforce — because they’re frustrated, or because they have to take care of their kids or their parents — then the whole organization loses out. 

I think it’s time to reframe the conversation. Five years post #MeToo, and Time’s Up, we’ve talked a lot about what men have done wrong — now it’s time to focus on what women are doing right, and to elevate their success. Men need to understand that it’s not a zero-sum game. They’re not competing against women. In fact, they’ll be more successful if they know how to collaborate with women. When every day feels like there’s some other crisis with the economy, this becomes an opportunity for everyone. 

Books like this are inspiring, but they can also give the impression that this progress is now inevitable. How can we take action to continue the momentum, to ensure we don’t backslide?

On an individual level, it’s really important for women to set their own goals and to figure out what’s important to them. There’s all this research that women are more likely to create purpose-driven companies, to care about the impact of their work. Women may measure their success on different metrics than men do. And that’s totally fine. Just be very clear on your goals, what your metrics of success are, because it might not be the same as your male counterpart, or the same as your coworker’s. 

The women who I’ve found are most successful do not think about measuring themselves on anyone else’s benchmarks. They have their own goals, their own plans, and don’t get wrapped up in whatever the culture is. Write those goals and plans down, hold yourself accountable. Have a network of women who are going to help hold you accountable. Share your goals with your friends, with your professional network. They don’t have to be your best friends; they could be a group of women who can help you stay on track professionally. 

We’ve talked a lot about what men have done wrong — now it’s time to focus on what women are doing right

On a corporate level, I think companies need to be using data to measure everything — data around hiring, data around promotion, to really make sure they’re eliminating bias from the equation. We need to continue keeping track of the numbers. There was a study that just came out from Lean In and McKinsey showing, for the first time ever, that women at the senior level are leaving the workforce. That’s really dangerous. That can have horrible implications, because not only can the culture of a company change if you lose a bunch of senior women, but you lose women who are role models, who might be paying attention to things like family leave, things that are so essential to maintaining a culture that supports women. 

We recently launched the Ellevest Women’s Financial Health Index. It’s a one-number score that incorporates publicly available data sets and our own proprietary data to measure the financial health of women overall in the US. Right now, that score is very low. The so-called She-cession hit women hard; women struggled a lot more over the past couple years.

But in your epilogue, you say that most, if not all, of these women leaders thrived during the pandemic. Are there any lessons here that might be applicable for women as a whole, in a financial health context? 

One reason why the women in my book tended to do so well in the pandemic — both leaders of countries and leaders in business outperformed their male counterparts — was something academics call a high adaptability quotient. Women are really good at adapting, being very clear and decisive about changing plans, not getting caught up in a decision they made months earlier. They’re good at constantly re-evaluating data to know when they should shift plans. There’s a lot to embrace there — relying on data and not ego. 

So I think all of us should be thinking, What’s our plan now?What are the factors that we constantly need to be watching, to figure out if we need to change the plan? What are the data points we need to keep reevaluating? If you’re thinking about financial planning, interest rates go up and down. When should you be watching for interest rates to go down, to lock in a lower rate in your mortgage? Having that data set is going to prepare you to have a high adaptability quotient.

Speaking of adaptability, let’s talk about women founders. At Ellevest we talk a lot about how more women founders means more businesses built to serve women. Can you talk about an example or two from When Women Lead where that was proven out? Aside from the chapter about Ellevest and Sallie, of course.

Men who aren’t investing in women-led companies are not seeing the opportunities that women are seeing. Female founders are far more likely to found a company and solve a problem that impacts women. And we’ve seen this in several sectors: In the healthtech space, we see so many amazing companies that are trying to help women with health care, with fertility, with menopause. The data is shocking, how women’s health has been overlooked not only by doctors but by businesses for literally forever. Whether it’s a fertility company like Carrot, or a maternal and infant health company like Mahmee, these are women who are taking a different approach to health care. And now, finally, money is flowing into women-focused health companies.

And of course I have to mention Sallie. She knew the financial services business, and said, I know this isn’t serving women. Let me tailor it to serve women. Or look at Whitney Wolfe Herd, the founder of Bumble. She was an early employee at Tinder, which was not putting women in the center. Whitney’s exit from Tinder was messy. But she said, I know just enough about this business that I can be really successful in changing it.

Women who have had access to different industries using that access, plus their outsider perspective, to create entirely new solutions is really powerful. And I call these women — like Whitney, like Sallie, like Reese Witherspoon and Sarah Harden — I call them reformers, because they’re reforming industries that were broken for women, and making them work for women. 

There’s this concept that ties into this: cultural numbness. I hadn’t ever heard that term before, but I discovered it when I was researching Sallie’s story. I wanted to know why someone with Sallie’s success would put up her hand and say, You guys are doing this wrong, the system is not working. It’s this idea that anyone who is part of a culture is going to become oblivious to the failings of that culture. When you’re in it, you lose sight of the great ethical failings of that environment. But women have traditionally been outsiders. They’re not part of the boys’ club, so they’re less likely to fall prey to cultural numbness. 

Some of the arguments you make in your book seem dependent on women being an outgroup. We’ve needed to hone skills like contextual thinking and adaptability and communal leadership, for example, because we weren’t in power and needed to create alternatives to survive. If and when women become part of the status quo — and thus don’t have that imperative anymore — can these qualities still be associated with women in particular? 

That’s the heart of what I’m interested in right now. My book is not about biology; these are the ways women have been socialized. And I very much did not want to “other” women. I don’t want to be seen as a female journalist; I’m a journalist. But I also understand that women are 8.5% of Fortune 500 CEOs. I think part of that outsider perspective is about women being in the minority. Women are less likely to fall prey to cultural numbness because they’re in the minority. And the numbers would indicate that we’re talking literally a century before women have equal amounts of power. Post-pandemic, it’s now 130 years.

So it’s sort of a moot point for now?

Yes. But these are ways that women have [historically] behaved. Thinking contextually, pulling on threads, asking tangential questions, trying to understand the forest rather than just honing in on the tree — that’s a typically female way of thinking, and it’s always going to be valuable. Pulling in perspectives from across an organization rather than top-down leadership — that’s about the way women think, not because they’re an outgroup. Women celebrate and express gratitude more than men do, but gratitude is something everyone should be celebrating, because it correlates with long-term, strategic decision-making over short-term gain. I think we’ll all succeed, if men start understanding that they need to lead with those qualities. 

You started this book in 2019 and ended up reporting through the pandemic. I’m sure there were plenty of left turns along the way, but did anything radically change about your thesis? Anything come up that you didn’t expect? 

My initial thesis was, “Women who have defied the odds are exceptional.” It was pretty straightforward. Then it became, “There are these amazing traits that we should be studying from these female leaders, and look at all this research that explains how valuable these traits are.” I was blown away by the sheer volume of data, supporting how diversity of both gender and race in business is 100% more valuable. I’ve had men question me multiple times, but if you don’t like one of the studies in my book, there are a dozen others that show that diversity is simply better financially. And the fact that it was so indisputable is so shocking, considering how little money goes towards women and people of color. The data shows that it works, but the dollars are not flowing there. The disconnect is so much greater than I ever imagined.

Why do you think that disconnect persists?

Because the data is so rarely gathered in one place. When I dug into the source of that disconnect, I learned about the incredible power of pattern-matching, the perpetuating of the same systems over and over. I came to understand that it’s not malice. Structural systems are really hard to change, and the change happens really slowly. That was overwhelming to me. 

When I realized that no one is really born a leader, that meant that maybe I could be more like those who had succeeded.

But it was also a revelation for me, personally, to be able to reframe all the depressing data about the double standards that women face as ammunition, as a tool. I never anticipated emerging from this with so much more self-confidence. Now, if someone says something to me that’s biased, I’m able to see it as just that, and not related to me, so I can think, Let me ignore that and focus on being productive.

I feel myself getting impostor syndrome, or wondering if it’s OK to admit that I’m nervous, and then I’m like, Wait a second, think about all the data about how employees rate their women leaders’ performance higher than the women leaders rate their own performance. And it’s all incredibly reassuring. I never thought of myself as a leader until I interviewed 120 women leaders. I was like, Wait, we’re all leaders. And none of them were born leaders. I assumed that these women were so amazing, they had to have been born this way. 

That sounds like a product of the monomyth that you describe around these iconoclastic male leaders, the Steven Jobses, the Bill Gateses, the Jack Welches. You’re supposed to believe that they were preordained to be exceptional.

Yeah, so I was really surprised when I realized: None of the success stories in my book were like that. When I realized that no one is really born a leader, to me, that meant that maybe I could be more like those who had succeeded. There’s something really leveling about that.


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