How Women Lead Differently, And Why It Matters

I think it's time women have a candid conversation about power. It's a conversation that will impact men and needs to include them. Together, we've reached a population of 7 billion; in another 38 years, we'll rise to 9 billion. Women make up 52 percent of the global whole and control $20 trillion in annual consumer spending. Our decisions have a measurable impact on local businesses, regional economies, and the transnational marketplace. How we choose to conceive and exert power as a group has the potential to define the 21st century.

In recent years, we've seen calls for accountability, fairness, and openness galvanize revolutionary movements and thinking. Long-held assumptions about who has power have been radically disrupted by technology and the culture of a digitally native generation. Influence isn't just wielded from the corner office anymore—influence is wired, it's mobile, it's six thousand miles away, being transmitted via Twitter.

Many of us are living in an age of virtual access and virtual freedom, but we can't ignore that there's a tension between the instant connectivity that technology makes possible for all people and the reality of economic and social inequities that continue to alienate and disadvantage most people. Less than one third of the world's population has access to the Internet. Three out of four people living in absolute poverty—less than $1 a day—are in rural areas.

We've created a hyperconnected world where the vast majority is removed from systems that shape their daily reality. The mass unrest that delivered us the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring shares a common element: a sense of disempowerment.

The way we do business, the way we approach development and exercise diplomacy are grappling to keep pace with evolving, complex effects of globalization. Fundamentally, we still want the same things: security, liberty, equity, and peace. People want to be considered, to belong, and to contribute.

If we want to successfully navigate this new world, spark economic resurgence and close the gaps in equity that threaten stability, we need new thinking, new partners—we need to elevate a new paradigm of power. We need leaders who understand local nuances and global interdependence. We need decisions to be predicated on sustainability not opportunism. We need leadership that leverages power for collective empowerment.

I see a solution in women—in the distinct way women wield power. Women's leadership is a force that can and must be harnessed for the global good.

Research shows that women direct up to 90 percent of their income to community infrastructure and improvement, whereas men reinvest 30 to 40 percent of their income. The World Bank's 2012 World Development Report finds that women with decision-making power accelerate positive development outcomes, and studies from the World Economic Forum confirm a strong correlation between an increase in gender equality and an increase in gross domestic product per capita.

It's now universally accepted that women are proven catalysts for economic growth—they are also a leadership reserve.

Long excluded from traditional power structures, women lead differently than men. Restricted access to resources has made ingenuity a matter of survival for many; frustration with impenetrable oligarchies and inherited bureaucracies has instilled the value of transparency and creative, practical thinking in others. Women have been forced to operate from outside closed networks, which means they've had to adapt by creating their own worlds; they've learned to unite peripheral, disenfranchised communities into collectively organized and governed microcosms.

The particular qualities of women's leadership take on a new significance and new power in today's world. I believe that the strengths women possess and the behaviors that set them apart will lead us forward in the coming years: collaboration, conviction, inclusiveness, creativity, and mentorship.

Women are an emerging force for leadership. From the International Monetary Fund to the African Union, women are assuming superior leadership positions in organizations with internationally significant mandates. If we invest in the development of a critical mass of rising leaders and the communities they lead, efforts to spread peace and prosperity can have a potentially exponential reach.

The women I have known in my work with Vital Voices Global Partnership are pursuing equitable, inter-generational, sustainable progress. They are pragmatists. They are visionaries. They're not waiting for economic recovery or democratization—they are actively creating the future they imagine for their families and countries.

If we have the courage to accept that our current crises afford us the opportunity to do things differently, if we recognize the value of women's leadership power and enlist women as partners in the redesign and reconstruction of broken systems, we can activate a global reset that accrues to the benefit of our shared global community.

Alyse Nelson is the president and CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership and author of the new book [i]Vital Voices: The Power of Women Leading Change Around the World
published by Jossey-Bass.[/i]

[Image: Flickr user Morning Calm News]

Add New Comment


  • SmartChick2

    "collaboration, conviction, inclusiveness, creativity, and mentorship" <-- I have yet to meet many women who do any of these things in business

  • Martiehen

    I like the premise to start a conversation, float it up to awareness. Would prefer more straightforward, concrete examples ans suggestions. Meat. From my own experience, I've found that my observations and ideas are put aside, until that oh s@#& moment when a project managed by males is a spectactular failure, while I bite my tongue to avoid speaking the inevitable "I told you so". Then, and only then, am I acknowleged, given respect and am reluctantly given the reins. Most women I know lead by example, collaboration and communication. They know how to build a team, intuitively know when someone doesn't clearly understand a concept and come up with questions to lead that person's mind to the eureka light bulb. Women understand provisioning and staging, critical paths and convergence. They teach, learn, have fun and make everyone feel good about their participation. Getting something done, just like they plan a meal, grocery shop, prep, cook and serve a meal where everything is ready at the same time, along with directing whoever is setting the table, opening and serving the wine, starting the coffee so it's ready to accompany dessert. Simple really.

  • Sharon Hadary

    Research shows: 1)  that companies with more women in leadeship report higher fiancial results than those with fewer women in top positions. 2) that groups with a greater proportion of women are more collaborative and produce more effective solutions.   Women do lead differently -- but no longer should the conversation be about whether women or men lead better -- what is important for economices and societies worldwide is how to integrate the two leadership styles to produce more nimble and responsive organizations.   

  • JohnRichardBell

    I suggest you re-read this quote from the blog: ". . . the strengths women possess and the behaviors that set them apart will lead us forward in the coming years: collaboration, conviction, inclusiveness, creativity, and mentorship." Just for fun, imagine the negative hoopla if this had been written about men? Leadership is a mindset. Capable men and women who guide and inpire others to superb achievement are leaders.

  • Rachel

     She used a lot of $5 words when 50 cent words would have made her point. too vague.....just my subjective belief (aka opinion)

  • Geneva

    Alyse, Your article is very professionally worded, yet begins with "I think:, which indicates that you began with your oppinion on the topic, and included both your experience and some of the stats that you found along the way. The way of writing is referred to as a feminine style of research and writing.  Many academics, somewho teach this method, also reject it when they see it on paper. So I am not surprised that you are receiving some criticism. 

    Regardless, Thank you for inspiring women with regard to leadership roles and challenges we face thereof. .  In the real world women who attempt to show leadership are too often cut down, pushed down and/or held down, not always by men.  It is aslo true that some men who take on leadership roles have suffered likewise.  You have guts.  We need more people like you.   But I would caution any woman to be sure they have adequate support before asserting themself on highly "controversial issues".  I don;t need stats to advise women here - I am a survivor who just happens to be a woman and know others who have suffered the same.

    Also true is that in order to achieve optimal success, we, men and women, need each other. Always have.  Always will.

  • DrNad

    This article illustrates the power and value that female
    leaders bring to the table. It also serves as a call to action for more women
    to pursue leadership roles in their respective organizations. In working with
    female leaders who desire to develop their leadership skills, I understand the
    t that women in leadership and those seeking leadership positions often face
    some rather daunting emotional and psychological challenges. These obstacles
    may cause women desiring leadership roles to reconsider and settle for less or
    prevent those in leadership roles to less effective. Through my research, I’ve
    learned that the female leaders who overcome these obstacles, make a notable
    impact within their organizations and/or communities. This article is a great
    reminder that just because female leaders have a different approach to
    leadership, it doesn’t mean they lack the power or the skills necessary to
    positively impact the global marketplace.

  • Noone

    It's an interesting question, but really there's nothing of substance in this article.

  • Rhondasuzanne

    I agree with some of the comments below:  this article is interestings---and I agree 100% with the theis---but it's not grounded in theory and lacks specific examples.  Yes....feminist power (i.e., Amy Allen, Nancy Hartsock) is different than traditional conceptions of power, meaning women then lead differenlty, too.

  • Leanne HoaglandSmith

    The title and the content IMHO lacked alignment. For me the how is really about emotional intelligence as women have an innate advantage even though it is small. The why is women who are truly emotionally intelligent leaders can create greater engagement with their teams. 

  • Emily.

    Thanks for writing a fantastic article Alyse Nelson! Shame the point was lost on a few. But oh well....

  • Beth Kelley

    I believe the author makes an interesting case for acknowledging and incorporating the way women lead, but I also feel she is ignoring the long history of power that women have had. While not played out on a global scale, from a historic and anthropological perspective women have often held power in and ruled the local markets, decisions related to the home, and social capital. In a way I feel she is discrediting this kind of power as not as important, and in effect feeding into her own concerns about acknowledging how women lead. I also agree with AliceW that this article could provide more examples of what the author views as good female leadership; she mentions organizations women are leaders in, but not the women themselves.

  • AliceW

    As a woman professional, I was excited to read this article. Unfortunately, it is long on vague and flowery descriptions, but short on specific examples and strategies.
    For example, don't just say "Women have been forced to operate from outside closed networks, which means they've had to adapt by creating their own worlds; they've learned to unite peripheral, disenfranchised communities into collectively organized and governed microcosms" and then don't bother to describe either the closed networks or the new worlds women create, and HOW they do it.
    This is an important topic. Please give it the intellectual rigor it deserves.

  • Andrew Dunkle

    Interesting article, but I do agree with Alice that it was a little too "flowery." I do think society has become increasingly more accepting of female leaders, but we haven't reached an apex of enough women pursuing these roles, particularly in business. I work out of the Skydeck Entrepreneurial Lab in Berkeley and only 1 out of the 10 companies here were founded by women. The standard argument is that men are more natural risk takers, but wealth is the biggest hindrance for women. There are still very few female venture capitalists and angel investors and without them I don't think we'll see a significant change in the status quo.

  • Vonnie

    This entire comment thread pretty much dwindled into an "us and them" drama fest after this point. When will people grasp that the real force is when we (men and women) can get over our gender and work together. Any effective leader has already figured this out. They aren't waving their penis or ovaries around like a trophy... they are men and women collectively LEADING the way and changing the world.

    Thank you for sharing this link, much appreciated. 

  • buzz word bingo

    This writer has either never worked with women in the contemporary workplace, or is completely oblivious to her own work behaviour (& that of those around her). Anyone who has had to tolerate the entitlement-driven drivel of the female friendly workplace knows that words like "accountability" "inclusion" & "collaboration" are just that - words - and they come a far distant second to "entitlement". But don't take my word for it - ask any female who takes accountability and collaboration seriously in their work - they won't find much mentorship from the entitlement crowd.

  • Gillian Ream

    I love the premise, but all I got out of this article is that women leading = taking six paragraphs of introduction before you get to the point. I know we can do better than that.