Women, Power, And Why We Need To Redefine Leadership
March is Women’s History Month, which draws attention to women’s contributions, as well as to the fact that it is 2023 and fully half of the world’s population remains vastly underrepresented in positions of power.
While the number of women leading Fortune 500 companies hit a record high this year, the representation of women CEOs still stands at only about 10%—and just three of those CEOs are women of color. In politics, women continue to be underrepresented in key decision-making positions, as women make up only 26% of positions in national parliaments. At the current rate of progress, it will take 132 years until we close the global gender gap.
This unequal representation in leadership impacts families, workplaces and society. It also costs the global economy $7 trillion annually.
We’ve seen the strengths many women bring to leadership. For example, the world has watched former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s “politics of kindness” that combined empathy with strength to help her effectively lead through crises, such as during the Christchurch terrorist attacks. And research found that women’s leadership during Covid was associated with fewer deaths and greater responsiveness. The study authors wrote, “Compared to men, women governors expressed more empathy and confidence in their briefings.” Women around the globe are leading grassroots activism, from Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize winner and cofounder of the Malala Fund, who rallied people internationally to advocate for girls’ right to education, to the ongoing women-led protests in Iran in the fight for gender equity.
“If you look at the evidence that is gathering from all over the world about women leading in every sector—from governance to grassroots leadership—what you find is that women tend to have higher relational intelligence that considers the good of the whole, and that has the capacity to anticipate consequences in a different way than many men do,” says Nina Simons, cofounder of Bioneers and author of Nature, Culture & The Sacred: A Woman Listens For Leadership. “At this time of ecological and social change, upheaval and danger, those are tremendously valuable assets that women bring to leadership.”
While some may argue it is harmful to differentiate leadership qualities based on gender, others argue that acknowledging differences is imperative in getting closer to gender equity.
“It’s more dangerous not to look at our differences realistically,” says Elizabeth Lesser, cofounder of the Omega Institute and author of Cassandra Speaks: When Women Are The Storytellers, The Human Story Changes. “People say to me, ‘Look how far we’ve come. Why are we still focusing on gender?’ My response is, if you are the fortunate person in your family and in your workplace where you feel equity has been reached, then go help someone down the street or on the other side of the world in countries like Afghanistan. The struggle for women to achieve equality and equity is not over. And the backlash to women’s rights is fierce and quick. We see it with Roe and all over the place. That’s why I still think focusing on women as a group is important.”
Moreover, in order to attract and retain women in leadership positions, it’s critical to examine how women’s experiences and challenges may differ from men’s. We’ve seen a number of high-profile women recently step down from leadership positions, from Susan Wojcicki at YouTube to Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon. “We know women leaders are as ambitious as men, but they’re leaving their companies at the highest rate we’ve ever seen, and at a higher rate than men are leaving,” Rachel Thomas, co-founder and CEO of LeanIn.org, told me in a previous Forbes article.
Women aren’t leaving leadership in record numbers because they can’t handle the pressure; women are leaving because they do not want to conform to male-dominated environments and definitions of leadership and power. “It’s not natural for many women, and women no longer want to push themselves into that old definition of power or smush themselves into a definition of what a leader looks like, when for hundreds of years it’s been based on men’s proclivities,” says Lesser. “That type of leader looks like the lone wolf, someone who puts profits for some over the comfort and success of the many. It’s one who doesn’t really use communication as a way of sharing power. It’s highly competitive. It’s a male-dominated definition of power. Now that doesn’t mean it’s all wrong or bad, but there’s a whole other way of brokering power that’s been left out of the equation.”
I wrote in a previous Forbes article that the definition of what makes an effective leader is changing. While a top-down approach has been a traditional trademark of an effective leader, successful leadership in a post-pandemic world puts a greater emphasis on emotional intelligence (EQ) and the ability to tap into the experiences of your employees. Effectively navigating the challenges that lay before us—from climate change to ethics in AI to a pending recession—will require leading with one’s heart as well as one’s head.
Danielle LaPorte, founder of the Heart Centered Leadership Program and author of How To Be Loving, says that heart-centered leadership embodies qualities such as empathy traditionally associated with yin, or what we call the feminine. On the other hand, qualities such as dominance and assertiveness have traditionally been linked to yang, or masculine qualities.
“Heart-centered leadership is more inclusive and compassionate,” says LaPorte. “Heart-centered leadership is responsive rather than reactive. To be responsive, you have to be very curious about what is going on in the whole person. When you’re listening to the whole person, more of their strengths and more of their weaknesses will show up, but there will be less hiding. In business, heart-centered leadership helps build teams that are more intuitive and emotionally intelligent.”
With men remaining in the majority of top leadership positions and ingrained gender biases permeating our culture, organizations and governments may have become out of balance by valuing traits traditionally associated with the masculine and de-valuing traits traditionally associated with the feminine.
“We need to reclaim the value of our human emotions, because they have typically been categorized along with the ‘feminine,’ and therefore devalued,” says Simons. “You’re not supposed to show emotion in the workplace, right? There’s a beautiful book called The Language of Emotions, which says that anger is our body’s way of telling us that a boundary has been trespassed. We’ve all inherited these very weird, twisted definitions of and relationships to emotion. I believe because of that, unexpressed anger and grief are part of the reason we’re seeing so much violence now.”
Part of being an effective leader is helping teams navigate periods of stress and conflict, while also creating community and a sense of belonging. Scientific studies of how humans react to stress and conflict were traditionally focused only on men, and found a “fight or flight” response to be most common, where one has a tendency to withdraw or react aggressively in stressful situations. However, when psychologist Shelley E. Taylor, PhD, brought women subjects into experiments to examine their stress response, she discovered that women may have a greater tendency for a “tend and befriend” response, meaning they may be more likely to react by protecting, or tending, to their young, as well as forging connection with others.
This ability to build connection in times of crisis is needed in leadership today. “In that crucible of stress and conflict, instead of us aggressing or retreating to our corners, we begin to create community,” says Lesser. “And that’s what women leaders are famous for, accessing the tend-and-befriend response even if we don’t know that’s what we’re doing. The real work is for women to dignify that in ourselves, to own it, to make it powerful and to insist as leaders that’s where we’re coming from. Because it’s a heroic response, and the other response—aggression and retreat—has not worked.”
This is not to say that women don’t experience “fight or flight” responses and that men do not “tend and befriend,” but rather that all genders can become more aware of and try to cultivate community and bridge-building as a valuable leadership strategy.