In our continuing series on female empowerment during the month of March, we’re going to go further with our discussion about women in leadership. Let’s talk about the importance of female leadership and look at some famous female leaders in history. These women who changed the world can serve as role models for us today. We need to be promoting more women to balance leadership styles and offer new points of view, so it’s essential to understand what it means to be a powerful female leader and the benefits of women in leadership positions. Their determination, self-confidence, and unique skills increase success in all areas by virtue of these traits and the inclusiveness they bring to every scenario.
What is female leadership?
We devoted our previous blog post to female leadership, so be sure to check it out to learn more about this leadership style. To summarize, female leadership has been well studied and is generally considered transformational leadership. Leaders who embrace this style take a holistic approach that focuses on teamwork, long-term goals, fairness, emotional support, and communication.
Transformational leadership is quite different from transactional leadership, which has been identified as a primarily male leadership style. Transactional leaders are less process-focused and more hands-off when it comes to project management, emphasizing results over all. They don’t value communication as highly, nor are they as invested in positive emotions or experiences.
What are the advantages of female leaders? Are there disadvantages?
One key advantage of the female transformational leadership style is that it plays up teamwork and inclusivity. It’s ideal for bringing in shyer group members or people that have been excluded due to different opinions, biases, or negative perceptions.
Another pro of female leadership is that it helps people develop their entire lives, not just their work performance. It tends to be highly motivational, which can keep people going through obstacles and setbacks.
While it’s ultimately been determined that transformational leadership is often beneficial – and largely missing from politics and the workplace, unfortunately – it’s not perfect for everyone. Some people prefer to work more independently and perceive female leaders to be intrusive “helicopter” managers, always hovering when they’re trying to get work done.
Additionally, female leadership can sometimes backfire when very rapid-fire, clear-cut instructions are needed in the moment, such as in military campaigns or courtroom litigation. Transformational leaders are great for locker room pep talks, while transactional leaders are the ones you want calling the plays in a basketball game where you’re down on points with only minutes remaining in the game. That’s why many experts recommend leaders develop a blend of both leadership styles to handle any situation.
Transformational and transactional leadership styles are terms scholars have assigned to people when studying leadership in a more academic sense. However, real life isn't as cut and dried as that. Just as female leaders can lead in many areas of life (business, politics, parenting, community life, sports, etc.), they can embrace multiple leadership styles depending on the need at the time. Women's skill sets and accomplishments are as varied as men's, as you'll see below, so they can also call on different leadership tactics for various facets of life. It is their belief in themselves and the courage to act on their convictions that ultimately make for great leaders that change the course of history.
Who are some famous female leaders in history?
Everyone has heard of Cleopatra VII, the last active pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt – the ancient Greek state she ruled till her death. Most people know her as one part of the love triangle with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. But Cleopatra was actually a shrewd political leader who formed many strategic alliances for Egypt and turned her country into a great power in its time.
Borte Ujin is the embodiment of the old saying, “Behind every great man there is a great woman.” Most people have heard of Genghis Khan, head of the Mongolian Empire. Borte Ujin was his wife. She often ruled the homeland for months at a time while he was away at war, and she was a canny political strategist and advisor to her husband.
An empress during the Zhou Dynasty in China, Wu Zetian was one of the most famous leaders in the history of the nation. She was well respected by the people for her leadership skills and helped modernize China during her reign from 690 to 705. She was instrumental in converting Chinese people to Buddhism, which became the main religion of the country.
19th and early 20th centuries
Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi
The Queen of India’s Jhansi State, also known as the “Indian Joan of Arc,” Rani Lakshmibai was a leader of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the first of India’s wars of independence against the British. She became known as a symbol of resistance for her country.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams fought for women’s suffrage and social reform, especially for the poor in her home city of Chicago. She founded Hull House, a gathering place for immigrants, known for its diversity and support. She led campaigns to abolish child labour, reduce women’s long work hours, and improve factory working conditions, among many other accomplishments.
Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to the United States Congress in 1916. Also a suffragette, Rankin served two terms in the House of Representatives, advocating against war and for maternal and child health. Long after her tenure in Washington, she formed the “Jeannette Rankin Brigade” to oppose participation in the Vietnam War.
Governor General of Canada from 2005 to 2010, Michaëlle Jean became the first Black person and Haitian Canadian to serve in that role. Jean was also the first female secretary-general of the International Organisation of La Francophonie, an international organization representing French speakers.
The former head of Xerox, Ursula Burns was the first Black female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. She espouses both male and female leadership styles and says her parenting style was the antithesis of the trend towards smothering kids, which allowed her to climb the ranks at work. Burns took a creative approach towards leadership and was a national STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) mentor. As recently as 2014, she was named the 22nd most powerful woman in the world by Forbes.
Jacinda Ardern is the 40th Prime Minister of New Zealand and leader of her country’s Labour Party. Ardern has a long history of advocating against child poverty and corruption and for public health. Her diplomatic and oration skills have led her to be called an antidote to the toxic masculinity of many male political leaders.
How can you emulate and promote inspirational female leaders?
As you can see from our multicultural list of female leaders above, we have many models to guide the way for us. The easiest way to mimic inspirational female leaders is to study their leadership styles and find methods that work for you. Read up on powerful women in history who intrigue you and see how they handled challenges and interactions with other people. Try some transformational or transactional leadership techniques (whichever you need more practice in), and make note of what works and what doesn’t.
Promoting female leaders is a bit harder, unless you’re already in a leadership role yourself. It takes advocacy and persistence to get past statistics such as:
Among new college graduates, men outearn women by 18 percent.
Only 21 percent of senior leadership positions in the US are held by women, lagging behind the global average of 24 percent.
Women represent only 4 percent of S&P 500 CEOs.
60 percent of 22,000 international publicly traded companies have no female board members.
Some strategies businesses can use include:
Actively recruiting women for C-suite and management positions
Promoting women from within the company
Offering training opportunities for women
Creating a gender-inclusive workplace culture
Getting men in leadership positions on board with gender equality
Mentoring young women so they have role models and personal inspiration
It can be doubly hard for women of colour to achieve leadership positions. They have to fight biases about both race and gender. Tough Convos is here to help on that front. We facilitate workplace discussions and lead training sessions in diversity and inclusivity, helping businesses and leaders develop cultural awareness and build inclusive company cultures. Call us at 1(858) 876-8176 or reach out online to learn more today.