What we can learn from women leaders

Women leaders have been instrumental in changing the world. From Indira Gandhi in India to Golda Meir in Israel and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, the journeys of many such women have been truly inspirational. But, does gender play a role when it comes to charting your success story? How are women leaders perceived differently than men leaders?

In the book Women and Leadership, Real Lives, Real Lessons, authors Julia Gillard, former Australian Prime Minister, and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former Nigerian Finance Minister, attempt to analyze the influence of gender on women’s rise to positions of leadership. They examine perceptions of women as leaders, the trajectory of their leadership and the circumstances in which it comes to an end.

Women and politics

The rise of women leaders is often subject to unique situations, making it challenging to extrapolate data from their experiences. Therefore, for the subject of this book, the focus is on leaders whose career paths and experience in politics and government can be more readily recognizable.

The authors draw on their own experiences as also the career and lives of women such as Jacinda Ardern, Michelle Bachelet, Joyce Banda, Hillary Clinton, Christine Lagarde, Theresa May, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Erna Solberg to present insights into leadership in a manner useful to women everywhere.

Every year, new findings are published about the way people see women leaders as compared with their male counterparts. Using that as a framework and examining each woman's journey —whether their lived experiences are in line with or different from what research predicts —the book endeavors to identify obstacles holding women back and how best these hurdles can be cleared for them to become leaders.

For this, they formulate eight hypotheses and ask each woman a standardized set of questions in order to test the impact of gender on the treatment of leaders. Here’re the hypotheses:

You go girl: In enabling a woman to become a leader, it is key that in childhood she is taught that she is not lesser than boys, and to aim high.

It’s all about the hair: For women leaders, does it end up being all, or at least disproportionately, about their appearance?

Shrill or soft—the style conundrum: Do comparable behaviors in male and female leaders elicit different reactions? Are women leaders aware of the leadership style–gender conundrum and do they self-limit their behaviors as a result?

She’s not “nice”: As a result of unconscious bias, it is generally assumed that women with power are unlikeable.

Who’s minding the kids? Having children and being a leader plays out differently for women than it does for men. There’s also the perception that a woman leader who doesn’t have a child does not have to face the challenges of combining work and family life.

Do women really support women? Do women really support other women, or is there a tendency for women to compete rather than cohere?

Modern-day Salem: Male leaders benefit from greater forgiveness in the event of wrongdoing, whereas women are punished more harshly (as in the case of the historical Salem witch trials). Also, in times of political trouble, the language and imagery surrounding an embattled woman leader become more gendered. What’s more, women leaders are disproportionately likely to become ensnared in legal proceedings rather than having scandals remain in the world of politics.

The role-modeling riddle: Exposure to women in leadership roles enables women and girls to see that the door is open and encourages them to step through it.

Roadmap for change

With the lessons learned from the real-world experiences of women leaders from across the globe, the book provides a roadmap for change that allows women to take control, address prejudices and combat gender bias.

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