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.


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.


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 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.”)


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.

For instance a meta-analysis conducted by Esther Duflo showed that the first generation of female leaders among communities in developing countries–sometimes put there by local government mandate–did not really have much effect on the lot of women.  I would argue this failure occurs mostly because the women who make it first into traditional leadership positions are too often entrenched in the existing power structure through family, party, religion, or ideology. Their loyalties make them poor advocates for change.  Duflo, however, does note that there is a positive effect on the next generation when they see the first generation in traditionally male leadership roles.  Thus, perhaps what we must hope for is that increasing the number of women in parliaments, ministries, and councils will have visible positive impact on gender equality in the long run.

In the new Global Gender Gap report, the United Kingdom dropped out of the top 20 for the first time in a decade.  The United States is hanging in by its fingernails at number 20. Yet Rwanda, a poor African country, made its debut on the list this year in the 7th slot and South Africa–a country that vies with India as “the rape capital of the world“–is once again in the top 20 (at 18).  Nicaragua also rose dramatically this year–now ranking 6th.  The WEF does not take gender-based violence and other tricky issues for women, such as access to contraception, into account; they only compute the gender index with measures that allow direct comparison to men.

Rwanda, South Africa, and Nicaragua each owe their high place in the rankings to better inclusion of women in the political sphere as compared to most nations.  Because the WEF’s political participation score is weighted equally to the scores for economics, education, and health–and because most countries score very low on political participation, but have nearly closed the gap in education and health–better political engagement of women can send a nation skyrocketing up the list, without any improvement in conditions for women on the ground.


Yemen, which consistently ranks last in the Global Gender Gap list, has almost no political leaders who are women. The parliament of Iceland, the top country in the gender sweepstakes, has about two-thirds the number of women compared to men. Parliamentary representation by women in both the US and the UK is abysmal (and embarrassing), but in sub-Saharan Africa, aggressive attempts to force equal representation has affected the overall Political Engagement Score given by the World Economic Forum.


A closer look at context is also often instructive. For instance, Rwanda has enacted quotas to ensure solid representation (at least 30%) of women in their parliament.  Indeed, Rwanda recently became the only country in the world where women outnumber men in the national representative body.  Not only are 64% of the parliamentary leaders female, but half the Supreme Court justices are women as well.

It is important to be mindful of the conditions that led to Rwanda’s push for gender equality.  The late 20th century genocide left that country with a population that is 70% female.  Women who were left had to take leadership–who else was going to do it? But these women also took steps on behalf of other women (Sense 3),  enacting quotas so that future generations of women would retain these gains. Thus, the “women’s leadership” in Rwanda is acting in full “women’s leadership” capacity:  as females in leadership, as leaders of females, as well as leaders working on behalf of females.


The UK’s political engagement score has declined since 2006. Coupled with the rise in political participation among some developing nations, the decline has caused the UK’s ranking on this dimension to fall.


In comparison, you can see that the UK’s political engagement score has indeed declined and this, along with the rise of some developing countries, has caused the UK’s rank on this measure to drop. Women in the UK have also lost ground in other areas, for instance in estimated earnings, which dropped to 62% of male earnings in 2014 from 73% in 2013.  Clearly, women in the UK are in need of leadership on their behalf and not just women in leadership posts.

The US meeting of the International Council of Women’s Business Leadership provided other points of contrast besides Hillary Clinton’s very straightforward and informed voice. This council was originally formed as a State Department Subcommittee. Melanne Verveer, former US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, has now taken the lead on moving the group to Georgetown University to act as part of the Institute for Women, Peace and Security.


Three young leaders of the future at the London reception. On the left, Pavithra Y S has a social enterprise in India that employs only the disabled. Catherine Constaninides is an environmental, climate, and food security activist in South Africa. Caroline Williams, on the right, started an executive education program at Oxford called “Women Transforming Leadership”–a program that points in the right direction!


Ambassador Verveer is tireless in her efforts to gather supporters and resources on behalf of women worldwide.  She not only speaks and writes on the topic, but she offers advice to institutions wishing to work in the area and often mentors those of us who are trying to make a difference as individuals.  She is, in the very best way, a leader of women (Sense 2) and a leader on behalf of women (Sense 3).

Cherie Blair, who was also prominent at this meeting, founded the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women after she and Tony left office.  I work often with the CBFW and am amazed at all they have accomplished in such a short time.  Their programs, quietly supported by a number of major global institutions, are aimed at helping women entrepreneurs all over the world.  These programs are well designed and monitored, with an eye specifically to what helps the women.  This is leadership on behalf of women, guiding the effort from a global vantage.

After a panel that followed Hillary Clinton’s speech, students from Georgetown lined up behind a microphone to ask questions.  One told the panel they occupied positions that today’s generation could never aspire to and asked what macro-level efforts could be made toward change.  I think we were all shocked by the question.  The whole point of this effort (and this was the panel answer) is to make sure that the next generation of women has an opportunity to lead  Everyone involved is making the assumption is that the next generation will make it to these high-powered positions and be represented in greater proportions than ever before.  It might be added that the macro-level effort being marshalled behind women’s empowerment is bigger than anything the world has ever seen on behalf of women.  Ever.

The ICWBL membership list reads like a “Who’s Who” of women in corporate leadership in America.  I am sure, however, that there are many female corporate leaders (Sense 1), who would be afraid to step up and join any group that intended to work on behalf of women (Sense 3), no matter how respected the members might be. So, I was super impressed that so many highly-ranked corporate women stood up for their less advantaged sisters and took a place on the ICWBL.  Besides those who were American corporate leaders, a number of women from other countries, some of them from the private sector and others from government and NGOs, were also there to share thoughts and plan for future action. Among these actors, there are many programs now running–and many more are possible–that help women across all domains in economics, health, and education.  The spirit is non-partisan: indeed, the scope of this vision is much larger than any party politics in any country.

In sum, this gathering of high-level women in Washington was making a statement–one of historic import–that we need to hear more often.  These women, already in positions of leadership traditionally occupied by men, were hopeful and outspoken in their commitment to leading other females (as well as males) to take action on behalf of the women of the world. These are the kind of leaders women need.

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