“What I have in mind is the ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously, together as much as individually.”
– Mary Beard
Over the past decades, women’s leadership in public life has increased significantly throughout the world. Yet the opportunities are far from equal. Women’s representation in national parliaments has more than doubled since the 1990s, but for every four of these global seats, just one is held by a woman in 2020. And globally, women make for only 21% of ministers; in some countries, women are not represented at all. While the gender gap is closing worldwide in areas such as health and education, significant gender inequality persists in public leadership, which poses multiple concerns. First, this absence compromises the women’s rights for access and participation in decision-making and agenda-setting processes that shape their lives. Additionally, the lack of women as public actors contributes to perpetuating institutional processes that do not include diverse perspectives for building innovative solutions in society.
(This article was originally written in December 2020 as a literature review for a Sociology of Education course. It was later presented at the Duke-UNC Peace Conference in April 2021. See the video)
Contemporary research in women and leadership from different areas – such as sociology, psychology, organizational studies, and political science – discuss that women’s underrepresentation occurs for reasons other than lack of ambition, lack of qualification, or problems of performance. One of the possibilities is that women are less likely than men to run for office (Lawless et al., 2010), but another is that, once they run, women face a more challenging landscape than men partly due to gender bias and other gender-related issues (Rhode, 2017). Additionally, the obstacles women leaders face can be compounded in the intersection of racial and gender stereotypes. Because women – as a gender, and not as some individuals – cannot fit into a structure that is already coded as male (Beard, 2017), strategies to address the obstacles in the pathway of women achieving and exercising leadership roles have to acknowledge the extent to which women’s decisions are socially constructed and constrained and, at the same time, confront entrenched structural and cultural conditions embedded in leadership contexts (Ridgeway, 2001; Rhode, 2017; Yoder, 2001)
Providing targeted training to women who want to run for office is one example of measures to enable more women to achieve the top, implemented by international and local organizations in many countries. However, while this type of training and support is important, “all too often, once they have been elected, or have attained a position of leadership, women find that they are left to ‘fend for themselves’ in what can be a very hostile environment” (Hoare et al., 2009).
This paper departs from these accounts of women’s challenges in exercising public leadership to examine how senior women leaders from different countries perceive their abilities to lead after the support of a gendered leadership development program. Literature review and survey responses from a global non-profit organization illustrate how a gender-responsive model should provide 1) individual and community support for current women leaders in the defiance of biased structures and 2) significant progress towards gender-inclusive actions and policies. Because leadership does not happen in a genderless vacuum (Yoder, 2001), women (and minority groups) need gender-responsive leadership development programs that specifically address the way and context in which they enact leadership. Although it is not a panacea for gender equity, gendered leadership development programs can help to pave the way for future women (as individuals as well as gender) towards building more equitable and inclusive societies.
Leadership development for women
The judgment of whether someone is a good leader depends on many factors, but leadership has been historically an area of study of “great men”. From the Socratic vision (in Plato’s Republic) of training leaders for the ideal political state to the contemporary idea of adaptive leadership for the 21st-century society (Heifetz, 1998), it is a long way without a template of what a good woman leader looks like. Certainly, women have served before in the higher ranks of leadership in many countries, like prime ministers Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand), Angela Merkel (Germany), Margaret Thatcher (England), and Indira Gandhi (India) or presidents Michelle Bachelet (Chile), Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia) and Dilma Rousseff (Brasil). And currently, even if in a lesser number – only 19 of the nearly 200 countries are led by women – the women heads of state in 2020 are standing out for leading to “systematically and significantly better” COVID-19 outcomes (Garikipati et al., 2020).
However, research indicates that gender underrepresentation and gender bias are persistent and pervasive even in countries that already had women as prime ministers or presidents. That is the case of Germany, Brazil, and India (Reykjavik Index for Leadership, 2020), in which most of the respondents say they are not comfortable with women as head of state. On the other hand, in the United States, where a woman has not been president yet, Americans say they are comfortable with the idea (Reykjavik Index for Leadership, 2020) and that, in general, men and women are equally capable of leadership (Pew Research, 2018). Still, most Americans also believe men have an easier path to the top and they are skeptical that the country will ever achieve gender parity in politics (Pew Research, 2018).
Indeed, women have a more difficult path to the top. But rather than the well-known metaphor of a “glass ceiling” meaning a barrier that excludes women from more advanced positions, recent research suggests that it is more of a labyrinth (Eagly et al., 2007, p. 18). In other words, some paths exist, and some women achieve the top, but the successful routes are hard to discover. Previous studies focused on explaining the underrepresentation of women in top positions because of women’s choices (Belkin, 2003) or that not enough women would lean in (Sandberg, 2013). A key problem with this argument is that there is evidence that persistent gender inequality constrains the scope and taints social judgments of women’s choices (Ridgeway, 2001; Kellerman, 2007; Rhode, 2017).
Gender inequality in leadership
Every social interaction – even the ones that are not in person (e.g. mediated by a telephone) – employs a shared way of categorizing and defining “who” self and others are in the situation and coordinating role enactment accordingly (Ridgeway, 2011). Along with other categories such as race and age, gender is one of the main ways in which we categorize people to shape social relations.
Gender inequality’s staying power, I argue, derives from people’s use of sex (that is, the physical status of being male or female) and gender (shared cultural expectations associated with being male or female) together as a primary frame for organizing the most fundamental of activities: relating to another person (Rigdeway, 2001, p. 7).
This categorization not necessarily creates inequality, but it is the starting point because the shaping of self and others’ behaviors is based on shared cultural stereotypes about sex/gender. More specifically, it is based on how “most people” view the “typical” man or woman – and this is taken into account even if the stereotype is not endorsed (Ridgeway, 2009). In a leadership context, more than an attribute of individual women or individual men, gender becomes an “institutionalized system of social practices deeply entwined with social hierarchy” (Ridgeway, 2001).
Gender stereotypes or biases work as a “code” that shapes any behavior and understanding people have about leaders and about themselves in relation to leaders. According to Ridgeway (2001), at the core of these gender stereotypes that shape social hierarchy, there are shared cultural expectations and status beliefs that reward or value more “male leader” qualities like being “direct, assertive, commanding, and powerful”. Most of the traits that people attribute to leaders and reward even nowadays are those traditionally viewed as masculine (e.g. dominance, authority, assertiveness) and these qualities do not seem attractive in women (Rhode, 2017). Although concepts such as masculinity are socially constructed and differ across cultures, researchers suggest that the correlation of male attributes and leadership is a “global phenomenon” (Fine, 2007).
As a consequence of these gender biases, women are subjected to “double standards and double binds” because they are judged by these expectations but also often internalize them in a way that diminishes their sense of themselves and their aspirations to positions of influence (Rhode, 2017). Yoder (2001) explains the importance of a gender-sensitive model, since leadership is a relational process that does not happen in a genderless vacuum:
First, leadership itself is gendered (Boldry, Wood, & Kashy; Eagly & Johannesen-Schmidt; Heilman; Pratto; Schein, this issue). How women enact their role as leaders is inextricably intertwined with the basic realization that they are women, bringing with it all the stereotypic baggage that comes with gender roles. Second, leadership is a process that occurs within a social context that itself is gendered (Biernat & Fuegen; Ridgeway). (p. 815)
Similarly, Stacey Abrams (2019), as an African-American woman politician who went through many paths on her leadership labyrinth, describes this challenge: “leadership is hard” because “convincing others – and often yourself – that you have the answers to overcome long-standing obstacles takes a combination of confidence, insight and sheer bravado” (p. 29).
Because leadership is a contextual process, it matters to consider leadership in politics, for the cases in this analysis (Rhode, 2017), and also how the shared status beliefs that disadvantage women can be compounded in mixed-gender or traditionally male settings (Ridgeway, 2001, 2009, 2011; Yoder, 2001). Additionally, beyond gender bias, Rhode (2017) describes other further structural barriers for women in leadership, such as in-group favoritism in male-dominated settings that “prevents women from developing the social capital and sponsorship necessary for success”; and work-family conflict, since caretaking is considered primarily a woman’s individual job rather than a social responsibility (p. 16-21).
In sum, any attempt to close the gap in women and leadership positions should address it through a gender-sensitive model that recognizes that “leader behaviors that are effective for men oftentimes are not effective for women” and, additionally, “what can make women more effective in these contexts depends on good leadership behaviors for women themselves, supportive strategies enacted by organizations, and contextual changes” (Yoder, 2001, p. 816).
Leadership development: individual strategies
Much of the current studies in women and leadership suggest that there are some strategies more effective to support women, individually and as a gender. These approaches fall into individual, organizational and contextual approaches (Kellerman, 2007; Yoder, 2001). First, in individual terms, formal leadership development can “help in developing interpersonal styles, as well as capabilities such as risk-taking, conflict resolution, and strategic vision” (Rhode, 2017, p. 27).
It seems important to note at this point, for the objectives of this study, an important distinction regarding leadership development as something of educational value. In this perspective, there is the presumption that leadership is a subject that can be learned, differently for some previous beliefs that leadership is a matter of having the inborn and right set of traits and characteristics. In this perspective, preparing a person from any gender to lead could be accomplished through training, education, development, and experience (Klenke, 2017, p. 246). These are interrelated but different approaches, according to Klenke: training refers to skills development, more task-specific (e.g. to listen more effectively or delegate to others), while education stresses cognitive processes (e.g. how to think critically about leadership problems). And lastly, leadership development focuses on increasing “self-awareness, planning and carrying out more effective actions, and seeking ways of sustaining development overtime” (p. 248).
Because studies show that is unfair to expect women to learn leadership skills and cognitive processes to overcompensate for established cultural understandings of what a (male) leader looks like, the leadership development approach allows the proposal of possibilities that lie in the defiance of structures, addressing special challenges that women and minorities face to make significant progress, as a group as well as individually (Beard, 2017; Rhode, 2017). This focus on gender and minority specific challenges is critical given that gender stereotypes are not individual beliefs, but culturally hegemonic beliefs institutionalized in media, law and government representations (Ridgeway, 2009). The enactment of gender roles based on shared cultural beliefs is particularly challenging for women who does not comply to stereotypes of what a “typical woman” is – that is, in Western culture, the public enactment of white, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender women.
This focus on specific gender (and minority) needs can be developed through one’s own experience, with the acknowledgment of the “messiness” of the process of leadership (Klenkle, 2017). Women leaders can benefit from “failing forward”, that is, having early missteps that teach lessons and pave the way for future success (Rhode, 2017), as well as learning to analyze leadership situations and to reflect on action. Instead of analyzing leadership with traditional understandings, research shows that it is possible to work with a definition of what leadership looks like for women, without an approach of “means to an end” or in the focus of differences from how men lead.
After analyzing narrative interviews from 15 senior women leaders, Fine (2007) suggests that women use a moral discourse of leadership that emphasize the four main principles: leading to make a positive contribution in the world, collaboration, open communication, and honesty in relationships. Within this perspective, being a leader requires a strong motivation and identifying one’s own sense of purpose through self-awareness and self-reflection about their own goals. “Introspection or maintenance of personal journals” (Fine, 2007) can benefit in the necessary work of building a shared sense of purpose which followers are willing to commit to (Klenke, 2017). This practice of their own storytelling also helps in blending personal experiences into the professional experiences (Jamieson, 1995) for public narrative of discourse. It is well-known that women leaders like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Michelle Obama and Samantha Power, as many others, have used journals to bridge their life stories into their roles.
Leadership development: institutional strategies
Studies show that network, mentorship and sponsorship strategies are important to overcome barriers such as in-group favoritism and the lack of social capital, that is, the actual or potential resources obtained because of membership in a group (Bourdieu, 1996). Groups with more resources can be regarded as of higher status than those with less social capital (Yoder, 2001), but they can use their status to leverage others.
While self-reflection strategies highlight the importance of “anchoring efforts to a sense of larger purpose”, mentorship and sponsorship can further assist in identifying long-term goals and in overcoming in-group favoritism: “A mentor talks to you, offering advice and sharing experience. A sponsor talks about you, advocating on your behalf, lending . . . [his or her] reputation and credibility” (Rhode, 2017, p. 28). Another type of mentor that is pertinent to breaking barriers is the sponsor, who instead of providing advice, it is an individual – or organization – who advocates for women. As Abrams (2019) explains:
When we have no historical claim to entry, a sponsor can be the proverbial key. A sponsor identifies opportunities that may escape our attention, vouches for our bona fides, and advises us on how to leverage the moment (p. 85).
In addition to mentorship and sponsorship, peer-network is important to balance contexts in which women are the minority (Abrams, 2019; Ridgeway, 2001; Yoder, 2001). This peer-relation approach connects with a style characteristic believed to be, across studies, more commonly related to women leaders: more inclusive and collaborative that encourage participation (Fine, 2007). But more importantly, because as “women reach positions of higher power and authority, they increasingly find themselves in gender-imbalanced groups – and some find themselves, for the first time, seriously marginalized” (Ridgeway, 2001). With a community-based approach, they can feel less isolated and share challenges and best practices with others that face similar conditions. A common strategy for connecting peers is the creation of networks and affinity groups for women and minorities to forge coalitions on diversity-related issues, increasing participants’ sense of community (Rhode 2017).
Leadership development: contextual strategies
Because research shows that women are more disadvantaged in mixed-gender or male-dominated contexts, creating women-exclusive environments with networks of support – either by mentorship and sponsorship or by community approaches among peers – plays an important role in making the context more congenial for women (Ridgeway, 2001; Yoder, 2001). These can also be strategies for “paying forward”, that is, working in gender-specific policies that will eventually enable more women in politics.
Certainly, not every woman in leadership will advocate for gender equity. Based on descriptive representation, as half the population, it is important that women are represented even if they make the same decisions as men (Paxton, et al., 2007). In fact, many women leaders have actively distanced themselves from women’s issues and avoided conciliatory or collaborative styles – Thatcher was an example of this attitude, being described by a biographer as “an honorary man” (Rhode, 2017, p. 50). It is also important to note that women are not a monolithic group even within country borders. Race, class, sexuality, and religion can intersect with gender to produce overlapping and unique experiences of inequality (Crenshaw, 1991).
However, research shows that women’s greater presence in political leadership makes a difference in getting women’s issues onto the agenda and leads to more women-friendly policies – while women of color particularly champion issues of women and of communities of color (Rhode, 2017, pp. 47-48). To use the words of Abrams (2019), “the core of being a good leader lies in finding ways to prevail, while bringing others along” (p. 29). This is the premise of substantive representation, as explained by Rhode:
(…) is that the participation of women increases the likelihood both that women’s interests will be adequately represented and that governing institutions will function more effectively due to women’s distinctive backgrounds and governing styles (p. 47).
Even if as of self-interest, ensuring a critical mass of women in executive positions can avoid contextual problems such as tokenism, when the few individual women in the group are judged by narrowed stereotypes (Eagly et al., 2007). Eagly argues that “when women are not a small
minority, their identities as women become less salient, and colleagues are more likely to react to them in terms of their individual competencies”. In other words, the more women individuals in a group or in leadership positions, their agenda or behaviors will be seen less as “women’s agenda” and “women’s behavior”, and more as “this person’s agenda”, “this person’s behaviors”.
To further investigate the effects of gendered leadership development programs on how senior women leaders perceive their abilities to lead and to work towards gender-inclusive policies, this article analyzed a survey conducted by a non-profit organization based in the United States who provides a fellowship program exclusively for women leaders. The 16 respondents were women in leadership positions in politics in 16 different countries, i.e. Venezuela, 2 from Indonesia, Peru, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Turkey, New Zealand, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, United States, and Lebanon. They occupy leadership positions in political parties, national and local parliaments, political non-profit organizations, or national media covering politics, and most of them have been working in politics for more than a decade.
At the time the survey was conducted, all of respondents had been through 6 months (out of 10) online and in-person training sessions in topics such as Gender Mainstreaming, Adaptive Leadership, Policy Analysis, Public Narrative and Strategic Communications, Good Governance, Resource Mobilization, Advocacy and Lobbying, Conflict Resolution and Self-Care, among others. The curriculum also included how to work towards a more inclusive and equitable world by advancing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through policy. The survey was intended as a mid-program assessment. The sessions were conducted by content experts or professors in leadership from a top university in the United States. And lastly, the fellowship also connected participants to a global network of peers and mentors, including other politicians and former female heads of state, with whom they could share challenges and best practices.
The objectives of the fellowship program consisted in the women leaders being able to: hone their public leadership skills to be even more effective leaders; broaden their capacity, confidence, and ability to engage on diverse issues; build powerful professional relationships and collaborations with women public leaders across the globe; make progress towards achieving their personal and professional goals; inspire and teach others about the importance of women in public leadership.
The survey involved 30 questions in 2 formats – ranking multiple choices and open-ended questions – and 3 sections – “Individual skills and goals”, “Pay it forward” and “Feedback on the fellowship”. The sections as well as the questions were related to the main goals of the leadership development or “fellowship”, as the organization names it, in working on individual skills, building networks, and addressing women’s issues for them individually as for the community they work on. This study will focus on the answers to the following questions:
- After your participation in the program, how confident do you feel on a scale of 1 to 5 as a woman leader?
- After your participation in the program, how confident do you feel on a scale of 1 to 5 to take on new leadership roles in your organization/institution?
- After your participation in the program, how confident do you feel on a scale of 1 to 5 to take on new leadership roles in your community?
- How many of the connections that you made through VVEngage may help you to achieve your goals?
- Please briefly explain how you have used skills and knowledge gained from VVEngage in your work.
- After your participation in the program, what specific action steps have you taken towards achieving your community goals? Please refer to your Needs Assessment to see your goals.
- Are there any skills or topics you would like to cover related to the COVID-19 pandemic and response?
The ranking questions were analyzed in terms of the percentage of leaders according to ranked answers. And the open-ended questions were coded in underlying topics to understand the main themes in each answer and connecting them to common themes among respondents.
The data shows that all 16 senior leaders felt confident about their work as women leaders after participating in the program, with 87,5% ranking their confidence at the maximum level (5) and 12,5% ranking it as 4 (Table 1). They also feel more confident – most of answers ranked on 5 – on taking new leadership roles in their organization (Table 2) and on taking new leadership roles in their communities – also, most answers ranked on 5 (Table 3). This self-reported confidence as women leaders and in their work in organizations and communities is significantly aligned with the answers given in the open-ended session of the survey.
Even when not given prompted answers, the respondents reported similar themes when describing their skills and knowledge gains (Table 5). Communication strategies and best use of tools such as social media and presentations were a highlight to most of them. A respondent mentioned a positive feedback from peers with her new skills in public presentations and speeches: “I had a very intense period of work at the Parliament when I returned home after the in-person training. I used a lot of [material from] our discussions in preparing my for public debates and speeches. So far, all have been highly rated.”
The leaders also significantly mentioned the impact of the course of Public Narrative – which had an emphasis on self-reflection about their background to find the core of their sense of purpose. In the words of one respondent, “learning public narrative was transformational; I also lead now as a woman leader and have a greater sense of purpose and confidence in advancing the role of women in leadership.” Another answer mentioned the importance of this approach to her understanding in leadership: “The session on personal narrative was very impressive (…) to send the message and to lead by example; I have used that strategy in many ways”.
The other common self-reported themes across open responses about skills and knowledge gained were: improvements on their negotiation skills, more knowledge on women’s issues and empowerment; increased feeling of confidence; better performance evaluation of self and others; advancement in skills of networking, sponsorship and lobbying (Table 5).
The responses also highlighted the importance for them of networking with peers and mentors. Some of them reported that being connected to other women leaders from other countries in learning with and supporting each other was one of the most valuable aspects of the program. A leader wrote that “being, learning and sharing with such diverse and incredible women gave me, without a doubt, a lot of strength and confidence.” Their reports on how many connections they made to help achieve their goals was very diverse, ranging from 2 to 50 connections (Table 4) from each fellow.
When questioned about specific steps they have taken to achieve their community’s goals (after their participation in the program), the majority of respondents described actions related to the advancement of women’s issues (Table 6). In the 6 months of being in the program, they also mentioned that they were promoted or elected to new leadership positions, they started network or mobilization initiatives, and they were communicating better their needs and actions, among other responses (Table 6). A leader described that “I am feeling more confident in being a politician, more important, powerful and proud that I am a woman leader, therefore, I am taking more bold decisions”.
One of the respondents mentioned how her own experiences of being harassed in the political environment made her more vocal about women’s issues because of the influence of the program: “After attending this training, I was able to strongly lead the fight for parity in the municipalities and generate actions at the national level, so that our constitutional rights are heard and we talk more about political violence that women experience”.
Findings in the survey are consistent with the findings of the literature review of recent research in women in leadership. The combination of approaches that fall into individual, organizational and contextual approaches can help senior women leaders to feel more confident as women in decision-making and in leading policies and initiatives for other women. In fact, many respondents mentioned their actions to promote the advancement of women’s issues while answering how they were taking actions for the advancement of their communities.
Also, the senior leaders presented responses that were aligned with the moral discourse of leadership suggested by Fine (2007): leading to make a positive contribution in the world, collaboration, open communication, and honesty in relationships. As their responses show, the support in public narrative was one of the most valuable aspects of the fellowship, and identifying their own sense of purpose influenced positively in their confidence to present themselves, to work effectively and to start actions that are related to women’s issues and empowerment. This finding suggests that additionally to an in-person session, other activities (e.g. guided journals) could greatly support self-awareness and self-reflection about their own goals even after the end of the program.
The answers suggest additionally that the self-reflection work combined with the community and networking aspects of the program helped them to navigate through problems they faced in their political contexts as women. For example, the leader that was able to confront her hostile political environment once she had the knowledge and support provided by the program and peers. In fact, this woman leader connected her own and local peers’ experiences to her strong will to lead the fight for gender parity locally “and generate actions at the national level”. This finding combined with the variance in responses about network connections to achieve their goals (Table 4) suggests that instead of thinking about networking as a “means to an end”, women leaders might need networking more related to affinity groups and community building. In other words, they report that connecting to peers and mentors was a valuable way to reflect on their own goals and purpose and plan actions accordingly.
Further, it is interesting the emphasis on gender in their open responses despite the program having just only one course that explicitly addressed gender issues (“Gender Mainstreaming”). There is an opportunity to further research if working together in a global and diverse gender-responsive environment in other topics influences leaders to take more steps towards gender equality in different individual and group contexts (nationality, leadership positions, race, cis- and transgender etc) for their communities’ advancement. For example, it is important to note that some fellows that responded about women’s advancement were not from Western countries, which helps to understand the global aspect of leadership expectations tied to male stereotypes as indicated by research. It is also worth noting that this study, as in the main research cited in this paper, considers gender in a binary frame (men and women), and there is an opportunity for gender-responsive model that also understands non-binary individuals enactment in a gendered society.
These findings certainly do not advocate for leadership development programs as a solution in itself to the gender gap in leadership. The program studied in this analysis focused mainly on individual strategies connecting to structural and contextual measures. There are some possible implications to connecting these findings to further research in environments that invest more directly in practices for structural and contextual challenges (e.g. electoral quotas) for gender parity in politics.
The former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet famously said that “when a woman enters politics, the woman changes; but when many women enter into politics, it is politics that changes”. Surely, placing more women in positions of power is not “an all-purpose prescription for empowering all women” (Rhode, 2017). However, it is recently proven to be a critical step towards more gender equity in leadership.
Beyond developing women’s capacities to lead, this paper shows that there is a need to rethink models of leadership development so they become more gender-responsive and include measures that address gender challenges on individual, structural and contextual levels. Because women and men enact leadership differently in a context that is itself gendered, initiatives that aim to provide substantial and inclusive leadership for the complex problems of the 21st century cannot afford to ignore the influence of gender in it. Offering leadership development initiatives that are intended to be “neutral” is prioritizing to prepare women according to attributes of what a good (male) leader looks like and do not defy structures that perpetuate gender inequality. And this approach has proven to be inefficient.
Expanding women’s political opportunities will require addressing the broader sources of gender inequality, supporting current leaders to enact effective leadership roles and to pay forward, paving the way for the next generation of women leaders. As mentioned by Ridgeway (2009), change in a gendered society is iterative and not smooth, it will come over time by gradually changing the traditional content of cultural beliefs: “A single wave does not move a sandbar, but wave after wave does”.