Completed in 2000

Project Director: Sumru Erkut, Ph.D.

Funder: Winds of Change Foundation

This project examined the experiences of women leaders in varying fields, in order to teach other women how to advance in similar ways and overcome barriers.

In 2000 The Winds of Change Foundation initiated a study of women leaders in collaboration with the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College. Our project sought to learn from the experiences of women who are leaders by virtue of their accomplishments in their fields how other women can rise to top leadership positions.

Among the 60 eminent and prominent women interviewed were elected politicians; college presidents; independent authors and artists; university professors; leaders in industry, medicine, law, and other professions. Some wield social influence, contributing to and defining national debates on social, economic, political, and moral issues. Some are trailblazers and some are leaders in a more traditional sense, working as executives in business or nonprofit organizations. Among these women are a CEO of a successful women's sports franchise, a founder of a multimillion-dollar company, and a president of an international foundation.

The participants differed in race and ethnicity as well as social class background: 27% of the sample were women of color; 19% reported a working class background or limited economic means in their family of origin, while 5% described their family background as well-off. They represent several generations of women, ranging in age from their 30s to their 70s, at different points in their career and family formation. As such, they achieved prominence in different periods in the social history of this country's acceptance of women leaders. The variety in their backgrounds and the broad range of fields that they represent provide both breadth and depth to what we can learn from their experiences and perspectives.

Overview of Results

Some of our findings confirmed what other researchers had observed, such as the institutional rather than individual roadblocks to women's success, the importance of tenacity and optimism in pursuing one's passion at work, and the increasing value placed on a democratic and people-oriented style of leadership. The identification of leadership skills and metaphors for leadership with "mothering" was an unexpected finding. These are our most important findings:

Overall, the interviewed leaders acknowledged that over time obstacles to women's leadership have diminished but have definitely not disappeared.

  • Most of these obstacles are embedded in the general organization of work that was neither designed with women nor the support of a family structure in mind, rather than in any so-called deficiencies women may have as leaders.

  • Many, but not all, women reported having to surmount these gender-based barriers in their own careers. For some, this struggle continues to be a daily aspect of work life. For others, their individual prominence and achievements now protect against incidents of gender-based inequity, while still others have benefited from the work of earlier generations of women who blazed the trails that they followed.

Many of the concerns that the leaders of color articulated derived from the historical, and to some extent, continuing exclusion of minorities from positions of power.

  • Leaders of color were more likely to report experiencing roadblocks to their success than Caucasian leaders.


The leaders in this study achieved eminence by leading in a variety of ways, depending on the context of their work environments.

  • Their leadership styles reflect racial and ethnic backgrounds, career trajectories, generational cohorts, and their fields' receptiveness to women leaders.

While it is not possible to talk about a singular female style of leadership, the majority of these leaders combined a strong focus on results with equal attention to the growth and development of the people surrounding them. Indeed, the descriptions of nearly every woman's leadership practice included elements of the democratic, people-oriented style.

Whether or not it is put into actual practice, the ascendancy of the democratic, people-oriented leadership practice forms the contemporary context of leadership today.

  • It is touted by both men and women as capturing many of the requirements for effective leadership in the contemporary fast-paced, turbulent, and innovation-driven economy.

  • The leaders in this study described not only their own practices as including relational elements, but also the practices of the men and women they felt personified exemplary leadership.

Throughout their careers, these women were tenacious and optimistic.

    • They paid little attention to obstacles in their work life.

    • Whether they stuck to their original plan in the face of obstacles or revised their strategy, optimism and a sense of mission propelled their actions.

    • It is important to note that these personal characteristics are traits that have value in making it possible for women to break through barriers. We can speculate that if the environment were more welcoming of women's leadership, other traits might characterize successful leaders.

    The strategy these leaders employed to gain visibility, hence credibility, for their work can be summarized as "know and value yourself and let others know."

    • They identified their strengths and capitalized on them, informing others about their ideas and the results that they obtained.

    • The comment, "Modesty does not create opportunity," offered by one of the leaders captures the significance they placed on the need to be assertive in gaining visibility.

    Many of the leaders recognized and acknowledged a strong foundation of early support from family and friends, teachers, mentors, or business associates, which they parlayed into a successful focus on following their passions.

    • But this was not a universal experience, and other participants who did not report such support also achieved extraordinary success.

    • While early support for leadership can be helpful, it does not appear to be a requirement for later success.

    When talking about leadership practices, these leaders described themselves as one of two categories: adapters and resistors. The adapters indicated varying degrees of comfort with traditional words for leadership, such as "power," "success," and "leader" to describe their practices, while the resistors opposed using these traditional terms.

    • Regardless of their stance as an adapter or a resistor, some of the leaders identified a framework for understanding the roots and practices of leadership as emerging from mothering.

    • The participants spoke of honoring mothering as both a training ground for leadership and a metaphor for describing leadership behavior.

    This last item is a key finding as it represents a radical departure from the early traditional advice for women aspiring to leadership to "become more like men." These leaders were secure enough in their roles that they could describe leadership using language from their life experiences as women, just as men often use military or sports metaphors to describe leadership.

    Summary

    Many of the traditional ways of talking and thinking about leadership can continue to mask the strengths women bring to their successful lives as leaders. The results of the study show that with or without early support these women had accomplished extraordinary achievements in their respective fields. Alongside improvements in women's employment conditions, the leaders' own tenacity and optimism have played an important role in their accomplishments.

    The full report of this project, Inside Women's Power: Learning from Leaders, is now available from the WCW Publication Office.

    For more information contact Sumru Erkut at (781) 283-2533.

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