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Illustration by Traci Daberko​​

Leading While Female

​Team leaders are usually managers and occupy a position of leadership in their respective companies. But even though women have made significant gains in obtaining leadership positions in the U.S. workforce, there remains a gender imbalance: women represent only 4.8 percent of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies. Women have faced challenges in this area that men generally have not.

In the field of corporate security—traditionally a male-oriented industry—women have made some progress in advancing to leadership levels. Still, there are considerably more men than women in the field of security, and fewer female role models or mentors. This is disconcerting for women when they look to other successful women forsupport, guidance, and sponsorship in advancing their careers.

A study I conducted for my doctorate in organizational leadership management at the University of Phoenix explored this issue. The study's intent was to identify themes in the stories of women leaders in the corporate security field, to better understand the factors that compelled them to enter the field, and the challenges, obstacles, opportunities, and enablers they encountered in reaching the ranks of leadership. The sample included 16 female corporate security leaders who had attained positions of leadership in the field of corporate security. The women were selected from a cross-section of industries so we could draw on different areas of business for insights.


In the study, four major themes emerged from participants' descriptions of their experiences as security leaders: opportunities to succeed, gender diversity as a differentiator, breaking through in a male-oriented industry, and the importance of relationships and mentorships.

Opportunity to succeed. The most overarching theme to emerge was that, when given the opportunity, women were able to demonstrate their value and worth to their organizations when they pursued that opportunity.

Some participants pursued security as a natural progression from law enforcement or the military; others entered the field right after college. Once in the field, opportunities to try new roles, to do more by learning new skills, to step out of a comfort zone, or to take on a new project in a familiar role helped these women expand their knowledge, experience base, and leadership skills.

In many circumstances, these women took on opportunities when they were not sure they could succeed at them. They recognized that their performance was not going to be perfect, but that they would learn. They learned to be curious, ask questions, listen more, and speak less.

Gender diversity. Although these women felt a disconnect at times from their male counterparts, being a woman in a male-oriented field was a differentiating factor in their role and sometimes helped them be successful.

For example, women were able to bring to bear skills and talents that were different from those of their male counterparts, which demonstrated the benefits of gender diversity in the security field as well as in organizations. For example, one participant said: "I feel that women can be efficient in investigations and people matters. Women are good conversationalists and developers of relationships and descend into all aspects of the job. These skills are highly valued by our leadership."

From another: "We deliver messages differently and passionately. By nature, we are very good listeners and come with solutions to fixing problems."

A male-oriented industry. Female security professionals' feelings of belonging influenced decisions that were made throughout their journey. Study participants felt that they had to consistently demonstrate their skills and talents to continually prove themselves and fit in in a way that was different from their male counterparts. Still, each one of the participants expressed a high level of satisfaction with a rewarding career in the security industry. None of the participants felt that the challenges were so great that they would have to give up; instead, they felt empowered to do more. 

Relationships and mentorships. All participants expressed the importance of relationships and mentorships, experiences that gave them a major boost in pursuing their security careers. Identifying the right mentors was absolutely influential in shaping their security careers. An interesting finding was that almost all participants had male mentors who were advocates of career growth for women in security.


The following recommendations are organized around the four emergent themes of the findings. For many of these recommendations, the most ideal time for implementation is when young women leave academia to pursue a career opportunity in either public or private security. The path for growth for these young people should be better outlined to address organizational culture, inclusion, career development, and perceptions of equity surrounding issues of pay.

Leadership programs. Organizations should institute a leadership development program that sets out succession planning goals and career paths for young professionals. Additionally, they should align young professionals with a coach and mentor. Young women who will be the future leaders in these fields will need a better system for identifying role models and advocates.

Dedication to diversity. Organizations usually reap strategic and financial benefits from gender-balanced leadership. Given this, organizations should cultivate women right out of college and continue to do so throughout their careers. Management must recognize the importance of including women and minorities in key leadership positions, and maintaining a diverse leadership slate of qualified candidates.

Retention strategies. Organizations should build a retention strategy within their recruitment process that includes identifying key talent, including female employees, early on in their careers and then follow them through their career progression. Organizations should consider that promoting a woman to a key leadership role sends a message to the rest of the firm and to the security industry at large that women can fill the roles that were once predominantly filled by men.

Mentoring programs. Organizations should adopt a mentoring program to create an environment in which new talent can navigate a large organization. At the very least, each new employee should be assigned a relationship partner upon joining the firm, and that person can help the employee find her way during the first year or two of starting a new role.

Female leaders should never give up, no matter their perceptions of the odds. This was confirmed by the recurring stories about the challenges and opportunities that helped to shape these women who became leaders in the security field. And leaders interested in furthering their careers should invest in developing others. It is through the act of giving back that the true learning of leadership takes place.


Rose Littlejohn is managing director of business services at PricewaterhouseCoopers.