Calling for Women’s Leadership

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Joanne Grady Huskey and Kimberly Weichel

Women’s full human rights and freedoms are fundamental to peace                                        and prosperity on a healthy planet.” Angela Merkel 

These are remarkable times in which we are seeing the struggles and even downfall of some of the most forceful populist male leaders. These men, including former president Donald Trump, rule by exerting power and control over others, while fostering divisiveness and fear. These are common characteristics of stereotypical hyper-male behavior. In Trump’s case, his bullying tactics, exclusionary policies, domineering personality, and resort to fear mongering and incitement of violence backfired in a second impeachment and widespread loss of respect. 

Likewise, we are seeing the erosion of support for other populist male leaders, such as Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who’s most damaging policies have been blocked by Brazil’s Supreme Court to protect Brazilians, and whose reckless indifference led to the infection of untold thousands of citizens, including himself, with COVID 19. More recently, we have seen Russians by the tens of thousands demonstrating against Putin’s autocratic control. This style of macho populist leadership is ineffective and off-putting for large parts of the populace.

As long-time proponents of women’s leadership around the world, we believe that this moment in history cries out for more women’s leadership to bring unity and caring to deeply divided nations. In particular, we need the qualities of leadership that women epitomize – empathy, compassion, inclusivity, and long term and holistic thinking, guided by values and based on facts. 

The dearth of women leaders has hampered our ability to prioritize the very issues that women hold most dear – education, health care, childcare, peace, and human rights, in addition to issues of national security, economic equality, climate and universal health. The COVID 19 pandemic and economic downturn has cultivated women leaders who are concerned about the wider community.  More such female voices are needed to fill a global yearning for balanced leadership that provides for the wellbeing of all citizens.

In America, we have the strong leadership of some remarkable women.  Kamala Harris, the former California Attorney General and former Senator, is now the first female and Afro-Indian Vice President of the US. Nancy Pelosi, the longtime Speaker of the House of Representatives, has spearheaded legislation to ease the economic hardships faced by many Americans during this time of health crisis and surging unemployment. We witnessed her capable leadership as she boldly guided the Congress in twice impeaching a president who betrayed the Constitution and threatened our democracy. Georgia’s Stacy Abrams worked tirelessly to register thousands of new voters and get out the vote in her state. Keisha Lance Bottoms, Mayor of Atlanta, called on people to unite peacefully, and unveiled new policies aimed at tackling both the burgeoning housing crisis and long festering racial inequality.

We know that good political leadership is key to the wellbeing of any country, but particularly in times of crisis. We need leaders who can summon effective, skilled advisors to assist them in making the best decisions on behalf of the whole society. We need leaders who have a respect for science, transparent messaging, and valid evidence. 

During crises, such as the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen examples of excellent national leadership by a number of female presidents who reacted swiftly to reduce the spread of the virus, enabling them to open up their national economies much more quickly. Conversely, we have seen poor leadership by a number of male leaders, who ignored the advice of medical professionals and made unilateral decisions that put their states and nations in danger. 

Internationally, female values-led leadership has proven notably more successful during this crisis. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, connected with her citizens through empathetic online addresses and reacted quickly to lock down her country, preventing the virus from spreading. She informed citizens about government guidelines with a clear message: “These decisions will place the most significant restrictions on New Zealanders’ movements in modern history, but it is our best chance to slow the virus and to save lives.” And her message was compassionate: “Please be strong, be kind, and unite against Covid-19.” Only 25 people have died from COVID in New Zealand.     

Similarly, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan ably led her nation through the pandemic by enlisting all citizens in a national cooperative effort to control the virus. President Tsai responded quickly at the first sign of the impending danger, keeping the virus under control in Taiwan and then donating millions of face masks to the United States and Europe. Inspired by her leadership, the people of Taiwan cooperated, resulting in a very low incidence of infection and only 9 deaths! 

Chancellor Angela Merkel boldly led Germany to confront and staunch the coronavirus epidemic, quickly getting testing underway.  Her background as a scientist was, by all accounts, a major factor in her credibility during the pandemic. In Iceland, Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir led the government in offering free coronavirus testing for all citizens and organizing a comprehensive online tracking system.

Prime Ministers Mette Frederiksen of Denmark, Sanna Marin of Finland, and Erna Solberg of Norway are women who have earned praise at home and abroad for their empathetic handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Ms. Solberg, for example, held a press conference for children, reassuring them and telling them it was okay to feel scared.  These leaders demonstrated that women take out their tool kit and lead with a sensitivity to the impact on all stakeholders in their society.  With this kind of empathetic leadership, people feel included in the effort and are willing to collaborate and unite.

Women leaders who gained the respect and attention of their citizens and who succeeded in blunting the impact of the disease share certain traits and approaches to leadership that will be valuable in confronting future crises that we will inevitably face.  A willingness to take decisive and bold action, even when it carries political risk, is surely among the most important hallmarks of strong, effective leadership. Conversely, both President Xi Jinping’s politically motivated efforts to conceal the outbreak of Covid 19 in Wuhan and President Trump’s efforts to downplay Covid for far too long, proved disastrous. Ms. Ardern, by contrast, chose, as she put it, to “go hard and go early.

In recent history, we have seen other examples of women’s leadership in difficult times. The women of Rwanda, who suffered most egregiously during the genocide and mass rape in that country, many bearing children with HIV, are the very people who healed their nation despite the odds. Rwandan women led reconciliation and healing efforts and turned their nation around, and now constitute 61% of their national parliamentarians, the highest in the world. With the future of children and the whole society in mind, they have reversed decades of hatred and fear and united their nation to move forward toward a brighter future.

In America, women have been on the forefront of reform, including the Black Lives Matter movement, started by three women — Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors. They organized and inspired large scale protests in many cities against excessive police violence and harsh policing tactics directed against people of color. This has led to a surge in global support for more compassion, empathy, justice, and human rights. 

Are empathy, inclusivity, and compassion important leadership skills? In times of crisis, they demonstrably are. Citizens want to be reassured and to know that their leaders care about them and are taking decisive and meaningful action. People skills are important in a functioning democracy where engaging citizens and winning voters matter, and even more so during a crisis. Leaders must win the trust of their people. They need to inspire a sense of collaboration and a unity of purpose. 

Of course, there are male leaders who embody these qualities.  For example, former President Obama, who values collaboration and has publicly exhibited empathy, was able to enlist the hearts and minds of Americans in striving together for a better society. For him, it wasn’t “yes, I can”, but “yes, we can.”  Now, President Joe Biden has instituted policies that care for people in need rather than divide them. His focus is on people’s welfare, but while many support this compassionate leadership style, others more accustomed to male dominant leadership are critical.

This style of leadership contrasts sharply with that of some dominating male leaders.  As British journalist Helen Lewis wrote in The Atlantic: (1) “Strongmen prosper as leaders because they promise certainty in uncertain times. They offer a simple enemy and present themselves as the only champion against it. The more control they have—by delegitimizing opposition leaders and the press—the better this strategy works. A country that elects a strongman, however—or where a strongman can hold on to power once elections become a sham—is an already troubled country.” 

Lewis cited some specific examples: “China’s Xi Jinping discovered the COVID problem early in the virus outbreak, and tried to suppress doctors’ concerns about the new disease emerging in Wuhan.  Leaders in Iran, Mexico, and the Philippines all downplayed the extent of infections. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro dismissed the coronavirus as “a little flu or a bit of a cold” and attended an anti-lockdown protest in April.  President Trump downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic and waited a long time before taking action, stating, ‘No problem, we have this under control.’ He was a proponent of opening early, despite medical advice that it could be unsafe to do so. Not surprisingly, all of these nations experienced surges of coronavirus cases with hundreds of thousands of people sick and dying.”  Lewis concluded that “…women, even women in leadership roles, appear to be more risk-averse than men. So female leaders find it easier to champion and communicate cautious policies such as school closures or mandatory mask-wearing. Being macho can often be a liability.”

Beyond managing the pandemic, women bring valuable skill sets to leadership, skills usually considered “feminine qualities.” Research shows that women’s leadership adds value to every organization in ways that are fully equal to male leadership and in ways that are productive and beneficial. The emergence of female leaders can become a centripetal force uniting society. We are seeing examples of female leaders emerging from across generations to interweave their knowledge and drive for change. If we take the environment and climate as an example, someone as experienced as Jane Goodall stands alongside teenage activists like Greta Thunberg. Since women bring their unique perspectives due to their different life experiences, any full policy conversation requires the views and concerns of all people. If only half of the population sits at the table, then the conversation cannot represent the full panoply of views necessary to devise workable and sustainable solutions for everyone.

Several recent studies demonstrate that inclusion of at least 30% women on corporate boards and executive teams contributes to improvement in financial performance and innovation. For example, a recent Harvard Business Review report (2) on the male-dominated venture capital industry found that “the more similar the investment partners, the lower their investments’ performance”. In fact, firms that increased their proportion of female partner hires by at least 10% saw, on average, a 1.5% spike in overall fund returns each year and had 9.7% more profitable exits. They found that leadership teams of talented men and women outperform all-male or all-female teams because the combination of different gender perspectives to problem solving, diverse viewpoints, and relevant market insights result in superior solutions to problems. Women bring a diversity of opinion to any business or organization, which, in turn, make the organizations more responsive to their customers, clients, patients, and others. 

Since we know that the wisest and best decisions are those that include all stakeholders, it has been detrimental to all concerned that women have been historically excluded from corporate, political, and other spheres of leadership. 

According to a 2019 Harvard Business Review (3) analysis of thousands of 360-degree reviews, women outscored men on 17 of the 19 capabilities that differentiate excellent leaders from average or poor leaders. These include:

  • They focus on teamwork.
  • They are good at multitasking. 
  • They value work-life balance.
  • They are empathetic and show compassion.
  • They are good listeners.
  • They are nurturing.
  • They are motivated by challenges.
  • They are strong communicators.
  • They have high emotional intelligence.
  • They think holistically.
  • They handle crisis situations well.
  • They check their egos and are less combative.
  • They are flexible.
  • They lead by example and often bring up other women.
  • They tend to be more persuasive than their male counterparts.

In addition, there are other skills that women bring that are important for leadership, including:

1) Women often have a heightened perception of what is occurring before it becomes visible. This sensitivity helps women understand what lies underneath tension or conflict, so that it can be healed and transformed, not just temporarily patched while continuing to fester. This is one reason why women are considered good peacebuilders and why they need to be an equal part of all peace negotiations. Significantly, 50% of all peace treaties fail within five years when women are excluded. Women are often the ones working at the grassroots, who understand the local people, issues, and complexities of the conflict. Women viscerally know what it means to give life, preserve life, and sustain life. If we want peace treaties to be comprehensive and durable, women need to be equally involved. 

2.Women tend to consider both the short term and long-term impact of any decision. Short term thinking, so often the norm, can have devastating consequences. For example, short-term planning on infrastructure projects has, on various occasions, led to using inexpensive materials and taking shortcuts to save money, but proves unsafe and more costly in the long term. As a result of short-term thinking on climate change with inadequate allocation of funds, we are seeing disastrous climate events that affect millions of people. Both short- and long-term thinking is critical in decision making. 

3.Women tend to share power rather than hoard it. Strong male leaders often amass and hoard power through control, making decisions based on their personal perspective and what is best for them. Yet, we have seen how this strongman approach has often backfired with loss of support from angry citizens. Women know that good leaders build a strong team by sharing power and encouraging team engagement, performance, and enhanced productivity. The more we share power, the more we get buy-in and a sense of ownership and engagement from citizens, team members, or colleagues, and gain respect, support, and cooperation. 

In her book Why the Best Man for the Job is a Woman: The Unique Female Qualities of Leadership, (4) author Esther Wachs examined the careers of fourteen top female executives—among them Meg Whitman, President and CEO of eBay—to learn what makes them so successful. What she discovered was a willingness to reinvent the rules; an ability to sell their visions; the determination to turn challenges into opportunities; and a focus on “high touch” in a high-tech business world.

Research shows that women, if given the opportunity, not only give back to their own families, but often affect their workplace, their community, their nations, and even their world. Melinda Gates in her new book, The Power of Lift, makes the point that it is only through empowering women that the world will change.  As Melinda explains. “If you want to lift a society up, you need to stop keeping women down.”

We have both worked for many years to train and empower young women to step into leadership positions.  We believe that the way to increase leadership at all levels is to build a broad cohort of young women around the world with skills, motivation, and confidence. We have witnessed that young women coming into their own, given skills training and encouragement, become more confident and are eager and ready to make a difference in their societies. It is time we invest more directly in supporting young women to achieve their potential. A balanced future for all lies in the hands of young women who, alongside men, can address and work to solve the many difficult issues we face today.

These trying times call for a balance of female and male leadership that protects the health and wellbeing of our societies and provides the wisdom needed to solve complex, global problems. This is long past due. We need to engage all stakeholders to solve the enormous issues confronting our planet. Female leadership, in its true sense, is inclusive, holistic, resilient and communicative, valuing collaboration and partnership. These qualities are required in today’s complex, ever changing, fluid and multi-dimensional world. Women’s voices and leadership skills will bring more unity and caring to a divided world. It is time that women served in equal numbers in legislatures, governments, corporate boards, higher education institutions, scientific laboratories, engineering hubs, tech labs, and elsewhere to meet the challenges of our time. We will not thrive on this planet without women’s leadership on a global scale. 

Joanne Huskey and Kimberly Weichel are cross cultural trainers, women’s leadership specialists and citizen diplomats who have worked on the forefront of building bridges between cultures and peoples for over 25 years. Joanne is author of several books, including iCAN: A Young Woman’s Guide to Taking the Lead.

End notes:

1. Helen Lewis, The Atlantic, The Pandemic Has Revealed the Weakness of Strongmen, May 2020

2. Harvard Business Review,Women are Better Leaders during a Crisis, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, December 2020

3. Harvard Business Review, The Other Diversity Dividend, Paul Gompers and Silpa Kovvali, August 2018 

4. Esther Wachs, Why the Best Man for the Job is a Woman: The Unique Female Qualities of Leadership, 2001.

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