For too long, we have believed the lie that women must behave a certain way in society, in business and in life. We have been conditioned to be polite. Subservient. Meek.
We are told to smile more. We are judged by how pleasant we are rather than how effective, efficient or assertive we can be. And when we are assertive, we are shamed for it.
Women leaders across the globe have achieved an enormous feat, and by studying their key characteristics and values, we can learn to replicate their success. By breaking through the patriarchal ranks of polite society, women leaders are showing the world that there is a better way to lead. And we are damn determined to fight our way to the top, so we can change the dynamic in our culture for the better.
Though we still have a long way to go, women are making significant strides in closing the gender gap in the workplace. In 2021, the number of women in senior leadership roles across the globe finally surpassed 30%. According to Fortune, the number of women running Fortune Global 500 companies reached an all time high in 2021. They reported that 23 admirable women were running Fortune 500 companies for the first time ever.
While it’s amazing to see these numbers climb, we have a very, very long way to go to close the gap. Those 23 women leaders only make up 4.6% of the total number of leaders running major corporations. It is past time that more women are accepted as the strong, powerful leaders they are.
So how do we do it? What does it take to break through the barriers and become a powerful woman in leadership? I believe it takes unlearning the lessons about feminine “propriety” and “politeness” that have been ingrained in us by our patriarchal society, so we can finally step into more leadership roles and ultimately transform the world.
Three Key Traits Women Must Claim That Will Change the World
I believe there are three key characteristics we must hone, celebrate and foster in the next generation in order to make it possible for women to thrive and reclaim our sovereignty on a global, generational level.
To make our greatest impact on the world, we must strive to be Courageously Honest, Bravely Adaptable and Fearlessly Empathetic.
First off, what is courage? Courage is defined by Merriam Webster as: mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty. Once we are courageously honest with ourselves and with others, we create an atmosphere of transparency and mutual respect – an atmosphere that equips us to overcome any adversity we face.
Best-selling author, former law enforcement officer, and well-renowned speaker and coach, Lisa Marie Platske, has mastered the ability to be courageously honest. One instance stands out to illustrate how she embodies this trait in all her endeavors.
Platske was invited to speak at a prominent event as one of seven speakers, and she just so happened to be the only woman. Though the host organization touted itself as inclusive and forward-thinking, she was struck by the stark difference in how she was introduced to the audience as compared to her male counterparts on stage.
You see, the male speakers were all heralded as being brilliant business leaders, accomplished high achievers, pioneers in their fields. Platske, on the other hand, was introduced with a nearly singular focus on her personality traits, followed with a comment on her ability to earn a leadership position in a traditionally male-dominated industry.
Nothing was said of the more than 100,000 leaders Platske had coached and trained. There was no mention of her recognition by the International Alliance for Women as one of the top 100 women making a difference in the world.
Rather than sit back, smile and accept this notable, though apparently unintentional, slight, Platske courageously raised the issue with the event’s leadership team after the fact. She chose to have a conversation with them about the striking difference in how she was treated as the sole female speaker.
Sure enough, they were stunned to hear this perspective. It had never crossed their minds that an unconscious bias was being communicated through the way they positioned each speaker’s expertise. Though it was impossible to go back in time to correct this, Platske stood confidently in her belief that by using her voice to call out this inequality, she was planting the seed for change on an organizational and systemic level.
Women are known in society for their emotional and personality traits rather than their competencies and skill levels. In Platske’s previous law enforcement position, she dealt with the frequent idea of many that she was to be sweet and kind rather than being mentally or physically capable of handling certain tasks such as taking down an offender.
One’s gender does not indicate their ability to succeed in a certain position – in theory, we all know this. But it takes actually calling out the ingrained biases to actually generate change. We must be courageously honest in calling out the fact that strong, powerful women have far more to offer than our emotions and personality traits. Only then will we make forward progress toward equality.
Change is inevitable, and we must be prepared and able to take on whatever comes our way. As a woman in a leadership role, there’s a good chance we will face more judgment, skepticism and cynicism from others. In order to succeed, it’s crucial that we’re able to bravely adapt to changing and often oppressive circumstances and pivot as needed.
Sara Blakely, founder and owner of the billion-dollar company Spanx, has been paving the way for women founders for years. She attributes a great portion of her success to having the mindset that failure doesn’t exist. When things don’t go as planned, she knows to brush it off, adapt, and keep moving forward.
She can pinpoint the origins of this mindset to her upbringing. Her father actually encouraged failure. If she only experienced good grades and success at school, he would express disappointment because this meant she wasn’t pushing herself to her limits. Having spent many years working in sales, she was able to keep her head high and continue pushing forward even after being constantly rejected.
Blakely had absolutely no experience in retail nor in business, but she ended up investing the $5,000 she had in savings and turning it into a $1 Billion shapewear garment company. She only got there by respecting, embracing and learning from each misstep and failed opportunity along the way.
Blakely’s success is living proof of the power that comes when we embrace, rather than shy away from, failure. It’s time to honor the growth that comes when things don’t go our way – in life, and in business.
Too often, we are told to accept the status quo. To stop when things get hard. To take the easy way out. True leadership never quits – it adapts. Our male counterparts have, for the most part, adopted this attitude. It’s time for us to do the same.
In order to honor the fullness of everyone around us, in life, business, and everywhere – we must be fearlessly empathetic, even in the face of backlash or opposition.
Kate Johnson, the President of Microsoft US, leads by example in the way she puts her focus on the people around her. For example, in 2021, amid the rising tensions and collective unrest surrounding racial injustice, she reached out to her team of about 10,000 for insight.
She wanted to listen to her team about what she could do to address racial insecurities and tensions. These conversations led to not only some professional coaching sessions, including bringing in experts like Brené Brown and acclaimed NYU law professor Bryan Stevenson to lead tough but impactful discussions. This ultimately led to a group movie outing, as. thousands of team members filled the seats of 42 theaters across the country to see Just Mercy. What Johnson did with this initiative sparked the type of systemic, institutional change we need to actually move the needle on important issues like this. And she got there by using radical, courageous empathy to hear what her people needed.
Aside from showing her team courageous empathy, she has impacted the company to also make this a priority when serving customers as well. By taking the time to really listen to their needs, struggles or concerns – they’re able to better serve them.
It would have been easy to take the neutral way out when faced with tough societal issues like racial injustice, avoiding any semblance of politics or “virtue signaling.” With her deliberate actions, Johnson chose to do much more than pay lip service to diversity and inclusion. She committed significant resources to listening empathetically, and responding to the needs, concerns and views of her people. That is what true leadership looks like. That is what we need more of in this world.
I believe one of the key advantages women leaders possess over men is our inherent tendency toward empathy. We are nurturers, attuned to the needs and wants of others (as a generalization, that is). As such, we are uniquely positioned to lead a new generation of leaders who can tap into the core values of our communities and organizations, inspiring bold action and massive change.
Forging Ahead To a New Generation of Female Leaders
We must consider the lessons of brave female leaders like Lisa Marie Platske, Sara Blakely and Kate Johnson as shining examples of what our future can look like, and how we can get there.
As we raise, mentor and lead the next generation, we must work diligently to break the old paradigms imposed on women. Rather, we must encourage radical, courageous honesty, empowering one another to call out biases – both conscious and unconscious. We must champion adaptability and celebrate empathy in the workplace, recognizing the worth and sovereignty of every person we work with, lead and encounter in our day to day life. Then, we can truly forge ahead to a new, better future with women having equal access to the table, and equal influence on what our world will look like for future generations.