7 Shared Traits That Unite Women In Power

With more and more women looking to lean in, now is the time to examine the qualities that help female leaders get to the top.

If we take a look at some of the most prominent female leaders, we can see that many of them share similar traits that have helped get them to the top of their professions.

So what does it mean to be an effective female leader? And how does one get into a position of power?

I’ve examined the lives of some of the top women across many industries—from Arianna Huffington, president of the Huffington Post Media Group, to Maria Eitel, CEO of the Nike Foundation, to Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, and others. Here are the characteristics they all share.

Effective role models

A recent CNN opinion piece about how to have more women like Sheryl Sandberg concludes that it is the prominence of such women that inspires others to be like them: "We can create more Sandbergs by surrounding ourselves with confident, outspoken women." Sandberg herself actively works to encourage others by running a monthly salon with talks by inspirational women. The more role models we have across all industries, the more likely it is that the female leaders of the future will be inspired.

Hard work

"Though successful women are often prone to credit luck for their success, it is mostly hard work and perseverance that brings women to the top of their field," says Lucy P. Marcus, CEO, non-exec board director, prof at IE Business School, Reuters columnist and host of "In the Boardroom With Lucy Marcus," in an article for LinkedIn.

No one is asking to be handed promotion on a plate. The women who have made it to the top have made it through sheer hard work and determination. But women who work as hard as their male colleagues need to be equally rewarded, and all too often this is still not the case.


Confidence can mean a world of difference between a woman who is able to live her dreams and one who is not—so often a talented woman is held back through lack of confidence. The former U.K. prime minister Margaret Thatcher was famous for her confidence and iron will—and for her slogan "The lady’s not for turning."

In an article for the MBA@UNC, media pioneer Arianna Huffington cites lack of confidence as "a killer to success for women. In order to advance their careers, women need to be comfortable seeing themselves as qualified leaders and risk takers."


Madeleine Albright said, "There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women."

Many of the current generation of women leaders have credited a good support network in their success, and are now active in encouraging the next generation of women in their field.

The MBA@UMC blog states that "Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and 'Change the Ratio' blogger Rachel Sklar are vocal about female inclusivity and encourage women to support each another at all levels."

With support like that, the future of female leadership looks positive.


Changing the mindset of what is the "right" career for a woman begins early. Women who have a good grounding in technology, math, science, and business—and who are encouraged to take those studies further—are more likely to become the business and political leaders of the future. It isn’t just the book knowledge that counts: Women need to know they can build a career that takes them all the way to the top.

Seventy percent of the business leaders interviewed by Forbes believed that education about technical fields starts in childhood. The article quotes Lydia Thomas, the retired CEO of Noblis and co-chair of the National Academy of Sciences: "We have to capture women at a very young age—after that it seems to be too late—because women are not getting the emphasis in school. We need to encourage parents to encourage their daughters."


CNN recently stated that "as women, in many cases, the impulse to do something out of the norm of our peer group, like write an opinion piece or ask for a promotion, has simply never occurred to us. If it does, we don't act on it. Our girlfriends aren't doing it. Our female colleagues aren't doing it. Why should we?"

The article makes a great point: Peer group attitudes shape our perception of "normal." So as a successful woman, I believe that it is our duty to be visible, to change what is thought of as "normal." Many women at the top of their professions cite strong female family members, friends, or peers as a factor in their success, and it’s something they are passing on to their own children, friends, and colleagues.

Mentoring—at all levels

Mentoring is essential to encouraging the female leaders of the future: Identifying and overcoming obstacles to their career progression at the early stages can have a huge effect on their eventual success. This should start in school and be a part of every stage of a woman’s education and training. If you can identify opportunities and encourage women early on then they will be able to fulfill their potential throughout their careers. Some of the most prominent women had great mentors—and they are often now working as mentors to the next generation themselves.

In a Forbes article, Dana DiFerdinando, CIO of Arena Pharmaceuticals, credits her mentor at SAIC for part of her career’s success: "I think mentoring is critical and I actually had a great mentor at SAIC who had already achieved the highest level scientific position in SAIC. She was a physicist turned technologist and she really helped women."

Everyone’s journey is different—and many are not easy. Hard work is the foundation of success, but the people and attitudes you surround yourself with, and the message you pass on to others, all contribute to a culture of female achievement that will take us into the future.

[Roots Image: CoolKengzz via Shutterstock]

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  • Zeina Issa

    Women in the MENA are increasingly occupying senior positions. Here’s a look at some interesting insights about women in the MENA that should inspire you: http://goo.gl/7XLAuz

  • TT

    Men support men in leadership roles, golf course, life, and easing into mentor/mentee roles come naturally.

    Women who are powerful, confident, and ignited with passion for what they do are perceived in our society differently from men who exude these same qualities. And there are new studies, analytics, and personal stories that women in the board room are still treated with a different regard. When women  demand competence from our peers it is taken in a different context than when a male counterpart demands the same competence everyone falls into play.

    The awareness is before you, I challenge you to make and be part of the change.
         Challenge for Women: Are you mentoring someone today? Are you challenging other women who are tearing other women down out of the sake of ego? Are you confident in your skills and potential, if yes, are you speaking loudly and as Sheryl states "leaning in"?
         Challenge for Men: Are you mentoring someone today? You are aware of the differences in the board room, so are you defusing the inequity of value at the table? Ie...if male counterparts are speaking and adding value are your female counterparts allowed to have the same freedom of voice, courtesy, and respect at the table?

    Honestly, women are a force and organizations who are not tapping into the power of productive potential of their female peers are losing out and allowing their competitors to take them to task. Women have the ability to read the room, big picture (who is who, why, what, where, where). Want to navigate your large ship faster to your desired success. . . bring female peers into the fold and watch them "lean in", once they do your organization is guaranteed to explode with passion, success, and forward momentum.

    Keep looking UP and OUT,

  • Ki-Resolutions

    Ekaterina, interesting article.  I'd like to add that passion, for what the why, what and how you do what you do is fundamental alongside all the skills you suggest, that and a CAN-DO attitude!

  • Marisa Warren

    Thank you Ekaterina for such a great article!  I am also truly passionate about women helping other women to succeed.  Hence creating the Inspiring Women in Technology Initiative to start the conversation and bring awareness to the issues Women face in progressing up the corporate ladder.

    The Women we showcase are highly successful Women in Tech who have broken through the glass ceiling in their professional and personal lives.  They are leaders of industry who are truly passionate about creating environments that build confidence and foster collaboration, where women WANT TO HELP each other succeed and progress up the corporate ladder into the c-suite and board level.

    In an Interview with Karen Jacobsen the voice of Siri in your iPhone, Karen shares how she overcomes failures, both planned and unplanned, and the self-doubt that can plague us when we follow our dreams. The latest clip is on YouTube - http://youtu.be/w1qeYxQsYtg.

    Marisa Warren

  • Mhanson170

    All good advice for men looking to succeed as well as for women. If men support other men in their career advancement through mentoring and the other suggestions presented here is that wrong, too good old boyish, or is it just as acceptable as when women support other women? When women leaders stop thinking in terms of gender support and more in terms of supporting what's best for their organization, then we'll have the best results.

  • Susan Budd

      I think you don't understand how women have been raised. We have been taught for generations to "not ever win against a man", to "submit", to "make peace", to be the "little lady behind the man", and  to always "make your man look good". If you look around at some of the differences between men and women, you find it is not their intellect, it is their view of their role in this world.
      I graduated from high school almost 40 years ago. MIT sent requests to me wanting me to come to their school. I didn't even consider it because I was going to find a man and get married and raise kids. I gave up a scholarship to actuarial school because I wouldn't consider a 4 year degree. I didn't even finish my 2 year degree because I had found my future husband and HE wanted to get married NOW. I wanted to finish. Would a man ever drop out of college because his girlfriend wanted ot get married right now? Do men ever think like this? I don't think so because it is not how they were raised.
       I finally did finish college but it took me over 20 years and it was a lot harder because I still had the responsibility of the household, meals, getting kids to all their events and to school, while still working 30 hours a week to put food on the table and taking 12 hours of classes, but I did it. And even then, I dropped the course I started with because of lack of support. I was getting all A's and B's but not one person supported me and cheered me on. Everyone just said "Why do you want to do that?" or "you can't do that." It was only Engineering. But when I changed to Math Education and would become a "Teacher" now that's a job for a woman even if it was math.
      So the "support" she is talking of is encouragement. It is not giving a woman a job over a better qualified man which happens a lot with the "good old boys". It is not about giving women better pay for the same amount of work. Isn't the national average still that a women in the same position makes 72% of what a man makes? She isn't talking about those things even though we still aren't at an equal level in those aspects. She is talking about encouraging other women. Helping women get out of the rut that we have been placed in, sometimes by other women.
      When a women chooses to have a good career that makes her work long hours, she is scorned by everyone because she is choosing career over family. When a man does that, he is a good provider. Can you see where we have come from? We need to help each other get out of that mindset. We need to encourage each other to be strong. We need to know that it is not a bad thing to be a woman and smart.

  • Mhanson170

    As it turns out, I too, graduated High School about 40 years ago, so I am well aware of the trials and tribulations that our generation of women went through to make the gains that today's younger generation of women takes for granted or aren't even aware of.  The generations have changed though and it is much more normal and expected that women graduate college (in larger numbers than men, I believe), have a professional career, and that they can and do lead just as effectively as men.  I also find that this generation of women is much more confident and self-assured than past generations and I believe that is a trend that will continue.
      Why we don't all get to the boardroom is the same for women as for men: not everyone can, and not everyone wants to.  The great reason the human race has been so successful is that we are able to share knowledge gained from experience.  Women and men can and should mentor each other for success in their chosen profession and within their organization.
      There are women who support their man in his career and men who support their woman in her career and that may mean staying at home with the kids or taking a lower paying less satisfying job to do so.  That's a decision each couple makes for themselves and should be respected no matter which one is doing the supporting and which the breadwinning.
      I believe the days of quitting college to get married and have kids ended with our generation.  I respect and admire what you went through to get where you are today.  You and those like you are the trailblazers for today's women, making their path so much smoother, and that can never be taken away from you.

  • Tk_hallus

    Eheu!  It would appear that the carefully considered inappropriate dismissive paternalistic sexist "Cupcake" has failed to elicit the hoped-for opportunities for discussion (if only with rapiers).

    Very well, then;  for closure:  The task of a Leader is, essentially, to get an Organization from Point A to Point B;  whether Points A and B are physical or metaphorical is irrelevant;  whether the Organization is a Prussian peletonfeuer brigade or a pickup herd of alley cats is irrelevant;  and what posture the Leader customarily assumes to discharge liquid metabolic endproducts is irrelevant.

    To be effective, a Leader must make the best possible use of the resources available, of which the most critical are the personnel of the Organization;  and so the effective Leader will be constantly working to develop their abilities and secure their dedication to the Organization's objectives.

    It is for this reason that the most effective Leaders do the sorts of things typically enumerated in this sort of FC article -- the critical point being that they do these things because they are effective leaders, not that they are effective leaders because they do these things.

    Consider this well. -- Musashi Miyamoto: Go Rin No Sho (1643 ed)

  • Eamonn

    Dare a man suggest that such women tend to actually be good at their jobs and best suited to their roles? Aside from being confident, outspoken, female inclusive, highly visible and effectively mentored of course...

  • Tak_Hallus

    Setting priorities appropriately?  Absolutely essential!  Thus: not

      Women Who Lead Successful Enterprises


      Women In Power

    You  have, as they say, nailed it in one.  Full Marks, Cupcake.