Strengths of Women Leaders Detailed in New Study
June 6, 2001
Wellesley, MA – The Winds of Change Foundation, in collaboration with the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, recently completed their study of current women's leadership, which provided some surprising findings.
The project sought information from the experiences of the women leaders that could enable other women to rise to top leadership positions. Among the 60 leaders interviewed were elected politicians; college presidents; independent authors and artists; university professors; and leaders in industry, medicine, law; and other professions. The women ranged in age from 30s to 70s- and also differed in race, ethnicity and social class background. The Winds of Change Foundation funded the project and conducted the interviews; the Center for Research on Women at the Wellesley Centers for Women analyzed the data and wrote the report. According to Sumru Erkut, co-author of the forthcoming report, "women's comfort in leadership roles can be seen in the female language they bring to describe their leadership practices."
Highlights of the most important findings include:
- In a total departure from traditional advice to rising women leaders to "be more like a man," the participants in this study spoke of "mothering" as both a training ground for leadership and a metaphor to describe leadership behavior. This finding suggests that some women are secure enough in their leadership positions to bring language from their lived experience as women to describe what they do -- for the same reasons that sports and military terms have been the source of metaphors for male leaders.
- Nearly all the women in the study described their leadership practice as including elements of a democratic, people-oriented style, which were at least as important to them as meeting business and professional goals.
- The strategy used by these women leaders to gain visibility and credibility can be described as "know and value yourself" and "let others know."
- Throughout their careers, these women were tenacious and optimistic and tended to minimize obstacles in their work life.
- External barriers to women's paid employment have been diminishing. Nonetheless, barriers to women's rise to top leadership continue to exist. Due to a persistent legacy of racism and exclusion, barriers can be especially harsh for women of color. The successes both leaders of color and Caucasian leaders have achieved were accomplished in a milieu of societal obstacles where tenacity and optimism served them well.