Role Models Impact Our Leadership Aspirations But Where Can We Find Them?
Some people think that leaders are born, while others think that leaders are made. I think that the truth lies somewhere in between. Growing up in a ex-soviet, immigrant, middle-class family, I could never imagine what it would mean for me to become a leader one day. The women in my family have always worked outside the home, going three generations back, but never held any senior roles. Nor did the men. When I started working on Wall Street, I had more contact with the women in senior roles. However, they were scarce and often embodied very masculine qualities. I guess they had to survive somehow in that very aggressive world but their profile was hardly inspiring to my younger self.
I couldn’t get much inspiration for my leadership style from popular media either. Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media conducted a study “Gender Bias Without Borders” on gender and lead characters in films and television in 11 countries. They looked at 5,799 speaking characters and found that not only men were three times more likely to be leading characters, but also that overall 70% of characters were male with women often featured in sexualized roles and rarely as professionals. The movie Miss Representation does a great job analyzing this issue in great depth (available on YouTube and Netflix).
Image Source: Gender Bias Without Borders report, 2015. Sponsored by the Geena Davis Institute on Bias in Media
Image source: Gender Bias Without Borders report, 2015. Sponsored by the Geena Davis Institute on Bias in Media
As a society we are not used to seeing women in positions of power and have very limited assumptions about what it takes. This, along with the extreme media bias, shape everyone’s perceptions of what leaders should look and act like. For example, if you were to search for the term “leader” in Google Images, you will mostly find male stick figures, male stick figures with capes, or photos of men in suits. If you look hard enough, you might find a photo or two of a woman in a suit (partially thanks to Lean In’s partnership with Getty Images to feature women in professional roles). In addition, most business books are written by men, telling the stories of other men. When we think about business mavericks, it seems that only men's names like Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Jack Welch come up in conversations. It’s not surprising then to find out that many young women can’t imagine themselves in leadership positions. Spending two years at the Wharton School, where 40% of my MBA class was made of highly motivated and successful women, I finally started developing a more robust view of what women could and couldn’t do but I still was quite skeptical about the world out there. Moreover, even at business school, women were protagonists in only 11% of Top Business School Cases. Hopefully this will change in the near future. After going through numerous conversations with women who told me that they felt like they would have to give up their femininity or family aspiration in order to become leaders in their organizations, I set out to find some inspirational women leaders who were strong and focused but also embody traditionally feminine qualities. Once I started looking, I found so many women who were doing amazing things around the world. In this process I also discovered in myself a strong need to lead and serve as role model to future generations of women and men.
Next Steps If you’re thinking about how to motivate more women in your environment to take on bigger roles, consider that in a highly-masculine business world, it’s really hard for them to be what they cannot see. Here are three things you can start doing right now: 1. Get inspired by women leaders. Makers.com is a fantastic resource where you can find numerous short video stories about great leaders across all sectors and industries. Some of my favorites are of Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and of Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsico. 2. Find the SHEroes in your organization. Connect more junior employees with successful women in strategic roles. If you don’t have any women in senior roles, bring in successful women from other organizations. More on why this is important here. 3. If you’re a woman leader, consider sharing personal stories about your struggles and successes, especially with more junior employees. Sharing personal stories is an incredibly simple and powerful tool because it helps people relate on a personal level and stop perceiving leadership as something unreachable. To get your started, here are a few favorites leaders that I often bring up in my talks and workshops:
You can learn more about why I find them inspiring in this video.