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What Kind of Leaders Do Women Need?


This is what real leadership for women looks like.  Right in the middle, in the green coat, is Hillary Clinton, and to her left is Cherie Blair.  If you look up from the space between them, you can see me, too!  I was so honored to be at this historic gathering.

This is what real leadership for women looks like. Right in the middle, in the green coat, is Hillary Clinton, and to her left is Cherie Blair. If you look up from the space between them, you can see me, too! I was so honored to be at this historic gathering.


As I explained in my last post, large global datasets now demonstrate conclusively that women are a seriously disadvantaged group in every country on the planet. These data also tell us that eliminating gender inequality would bring extraordinary benefits to women, men, and children all over the world by increasing prosperity, reducing scourges like disease and conflict, and improving governance.

Many large institutions are now actively engaged in support of this effort, but some folks still simply don’t know the truth and are not behind the mission.  What we now need, it seems to me, is some honest and courageous leadership to bring the situation to more people’s awareness and recruit their support.

There is a lot of rah-rah out there these days about “women’s leadership.”  Indeed, within the past week, I have attended two important events focused on this topic. One was the Women of the Future Summit in London (October 28) and the other was the inaugural meeting of the International Council of Women’s Business Leadership at Georgetown University in Washington, DC (October 30). Hearing and watching so many women modelling leadership caused me to think critically about what we mean by this already over-used term, “women’s leadership.”

This single term conflates three very different phenomena.  The first is women in positions of leadership traditionally held by men.  A second meaning of “women’s leadership” might refer to someone (female or male) who leads women.  And the third–also either male or female–could be someone who leads on behalf of women, who is a leader for women.


Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking on behalf of women worldwide at Georgetown University last week.  Gaston Hall was packed and enthusiastic--I felt like I had stepped into a rock concert.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking on behalf of women worldwide at Georgetown University last week. Gaston Hall was packed and enthusiastic–I felt like I had stepped into a rock concert.


It is true that, occasionally, a single person manifests all three senses of the term “woman leader”:  Hillary Clinton, who met with the International Council on Women’s Business Leadership, is a woman who has held positions of leadership traditionally occupied by men. Through her roles as Senator of New York and Secretary of State, she led both women and men. But she also unapologetically leads for and on behalf of women, as her role in convening the ICWBL and her speech at Georgetown following our meeting clearly demonstrated.

Clinton’s courage in speaking out on behalf of women–using the undaunted tone of someone who knows her stuff and intends to actually lead–was striking to me, in part because of the comparison to the dismal performance of a high-ranking government official who spoke at the Women of the Future Summit in London a few days earlier. Theresa May, the UK Home Secretary, took unusual care to argue that British business should be allowed to proceed in their own good time to appoint women to corporate boards–without heroic intrusions from legislators. May used gains by the FTSE 250 and 500 over the past two years as her evidence (please note that these are gains that all occurred at the end of a pointed stick held by European Union Justice Minister Viviane Redding, who was threatening quotas).


The Women of the Future Summit was simply fabulous.  Look at the sponsor list!  These are the kinds of institutions that are behind the global push to empower women.  As I said in this speech, women have never before in history had this kind of support.  We owe it to our grandmothers and our granddaughters to run with this opportunity.

The Women of the Future Summit was simply fabulous. Look at the sponsor list! These are the kinds of institutions now behind the global push to empower women. As I said in this speech, women have never before in history had this kind of support. We owe it to our grandmothers and our granddaughters to run with this opportunity.


In truth, the natural pace of British business on this issue makes a tortoise look like a racehorse. May and others in this “let them do it on their own” camp have a good reason to focus on the performance of the top FTSE companies: these corporations are at least making some progress, probably because they are big enough to care about how they look to the public. The overall picture, however, shows that British business is a global laggard.

In the World Economic Forum Gender Report for 2014, also released last week, there are numbers reporting the percentage of women on corporate boards for many countries.  When British business is taken as a whole, the UK has only 7% of board seats occupied by women.  For perspective, twenty other countries (that is, most of those reporting) have a better record, including Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Indonesia, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, the Slovak Republic, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United States. From that vantage, British business looks like a pretty exclusive old boys’ club.  Importantly, many of the countries with the bigger numbers got there by enacting some kind of legislative mandate–precisely what May is trying to discourage.  Perhaps we don’t want to demand advocacy of dramatic interventions–such as quotas–from “women’s leadership,” but I do think we need to demand honest representation of the facts.

Indeed, I’m afraid it is sometimes all too clear that women in positions of leadership traditionally held by men (Sense 1 of the term) do not intend to lead on behalf of women (Sense 3).  I have known many women who occupied privileged posts, but who would shudder in horror that anyone would even notice they were female.  Such women would never consider stepping up to the plate on behalf of the other women in the same organization–or, heaven forbid, addressing themselves to the needs of women generally. Women like this are fond of saying, “I never think of myself as a woman, I am just doing my job,” or some other simultaneously self-negating and arrogant nonsense. (Translation:  “I don’t want to be seen as a member of such a despised group.  And, anyway, I am so smart and so cool that I never have to think about systemic disadvantage.  I am just that good.”)


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At the Women of the Future Summit in London, Maria Jose´Araneda (left), who works for Minera Escondida in Chile, told me about the issues faced by pregnant women who work in the mines.  Kaitlin Wolfe, from Chicago, was sent by Walmart–she works in their women’s empowerment initiative.  These are the sort of leaders the next generation needs:  women who will stand up on behalf of other women.


Ironically, that kind of cowardice is exactly the reason we must interpret numbers on women’s political leadership, such as reported by the 2014 Global Gender Gap report, very carefully. The international community seems to believe that simply having more women in the top roles will improve the lot of all women in a given nation.  Unfortunately, the data do not suggest this expectation holds true, at least in the short run.