Women have always been great leaders. We just don’t talk or hear about them.
Sometimes I’ll read articles about why women should be leaders, as if we need an argument upon argument to support women’s leadership. I have noticed that some of these articles focus on stereotypes – women’s personality traits, management styles, and differences. It’s almost as if male leaders and traits are portrayed as “bad” and female leaders are “good.” That’s troubling.
Stereotypes, although positive, are still stereotypes. Leaders should be evaluated as individuals.
Rather than prove why women make great leaders, I’d rather show how women have always been successful leaders by looking at their track records in three areas:
- Women business leaders
Men and women were considered equals in early Egyptian dynasties as well as Japan, China, India, Africa, and the Americas. In some cultures, laws (religious and secular) controlled women’s behaviors, mainly for inheritance and lineage.
If women were able to own land and trade like men, there may have been more women leaders than we know. Some may have been written out of history.
Here are a few we remember:
Hatshepsut – her tomb was discovered recently, her body hidden from its original location. She was a woman pharaoh erased from history. It is not clear why and it is unfair to assume it was simply because she was a woman; there is no proof. We do know that, “she reigned peaceably, building temples and monuments, resulting in the flourish of Egypt.” She is considered to be one the most successful pharaohs.
Artemisia I of Caria – In addition to being a queen of Carians (Turkey), Artemisia fought as an ally of Xerxes I, King of Persia, against the free Greek city states during the second Persian invasion of Greece (yes, she was the warrior leader in the the movie 300: Rise of an Empire). There are mixed reviews of her accomplishments:
- Herodotus praised her decisiveness and intelligence and emphasized her influence on Xerxes
- Thessalus, a son of Hippocrates, described her in a speech as a cowardly pirate
The Trung Sisters of Vietnam are celebrated by the Vietnamese for their attempts to halt Chinese domination in Vietnam. They were the daughters of a general, trained in the martial arts. They led a number of campaigns to remove the Han Chinese from Nanyue, and managed to resist additional attacks for 3 years. They were eventually defeated.
These are a handful of women leaders that we can find in history and we don’t always learn about in school. How many other women leaders are missing?
“The mother is a school; if she is well reared, you are sure to build a nation.”
– Arab proverb, from Ann Crittenden, The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued
Mothers are leaders. Many women and mothers don’t realize the power and influence they have (neither does society); mothers could influence and change the minds of a generation.
I think we have a tendency to discount motherhood. In our society today we are focused on achievements that are earned and you don’t necessarily earn a child. Being a mother is a biological result, but being a good mother is work.
Mothers at home are, by definition, unproductive, even though by educating and socializing their children, they contribute to the human capital that is critical to economic growth. And because their work isn’t quantified, they disappear from pictures of the economy that are drawn with the data.
–Paul Starr, Women’s Work, New York Time Review of Books
We sometimes dismiss what mothers will do for their children as to-do list activities, rather than see a woman’s larger strategy for leading and teaching. There is a LinkedIn piece by Jas Singh, How Mothers Make Great Leaders. He identifies 4 leadership traits he believes mothers exhibit – being giving, handling pressure, efficiency, and empathy.
There is an additional trait to add – the ability to create opportunities for others to shine and realize their potential.
My mother helped me with homework, taught me ethics and values, was a Girl Scout troop leader, drove me to lessons and appointments. That may sound like a long to-do list, but her motivation was to make sure I had as many opportunities as possible available to realize my potential. She didn’t want me to ignore my dreams and goals, thinking that they weren’t possible. She believed anything was possible.
That’s something great leaders do.
Women business leaders
Profits reflect great leadership. How leaders encourage their organization to earn revenue can vary (watch proof from Jim Tamm’s TED talk about cultivating collaboration, which men and women nurture). Rather than discussing leadership stereotypes or styles, let’s just focus on bottom line results:
“All the cash in the last two quarters is coming from companies run by women…I don’t have a single company run by a man right now that’s outperformed the ones run by women.”
— Kevin O’Leary, Shark Tank
Quantopian, a Boston-based trading platform based on crowdsourced algorithms, pitted the performance of Fortune 1000 companies that had women CEOs between 2002 and 2014 against the S&P 500’s performance during that same period. The comparison showed that the 80 women CEOs during those 12 years produced equity returns 226% better than the S&P 500.
— Pat Wechsler, Women-led companies perform three times better than the S&P 500, Fortune
With results like these, how can there be a debate about a woman’s ability to lead businesses? Why don’t we hear about these types of results more often? How someone achieves results is different than knowing what has been achieved. And women are achieving.
Great leaders come from driven individuals – men and women. Rather than comparing the two and proving that women can be great leaders because of their traits or differences, why don’t we look at what women have achieved – historically, as mothers, and in business.
Why do we keep needing to prove ourselves?