What Does Women’s Leadership Mean in 2015?

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Attendees gather at the 2014 Women's Leadership Conference sponsored by MGM Resorts.
Attendees gather at the 2014 Women’s Leadership Conference sponsored by the MGM Resorts Foundation.

Nearly a century after women were granted the right to vote and a half century after the Equal Pay Act, the United States has yet to have a female president. And in Fortune 500 companies, women hold less than 20 percent of board seats and a “shockingly low” 4.8 percent of CEO positions, says Leah Seligmann, chief sustainability officer at NRG Energy.

As TriplePundit kicks off our new series on women’s leadership, we posed this question to some of the women we admire most: What does women’s leadership mean in 2015?

Going beyond gender equality

While Seligmann thinks we have made significant progress in gender equality, she challenges us to go further:

“… This dearth of female leaders in traditional leadership roles is particularly troubling because it is not the result of a lack of qualified women, but of society’s inability to recognize and reward the full potential of half the population. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was recently asked when we would have enough women on the Supreme Court, and she responded, ‘When there are nine.’ Her comment was met with surprise, but a court made up of 100 percent men is hardly seen as unusual.

Women have made great strides in the past 100 years, but the aim has always been equal treatment, and it is my belief that we have set the bar too low. We owe it to ourselves and future generations of young women to push beyond the concept that we can be ‘as good as’ to truly take our position as global leaders.

My hope for 2015 is that this is the year that we actually shatter the glass ceiling to grab the accolades and leadership roles that women deserve.”

Challenge companies on what corporate leadership means

Suzanne Fallender, director of the Global Girls & Women Initiative for Intel, has another challenge, but this one is for companies:

“To me, [women’s leadership in 2015] means continuing to advocate for and invest in changes that support advancement of women within their organizations and industries, by addressing issues of unconscious bias and enlisting the support of both women and men in developing solutions.

It also means challenging companies and business leaders to reexamine the leadership role that the private sector can play in empowering girls and women globally. From strategic initiatives and partnerships [that] expand access to education and technology, to programs supporting entrepreneurship and supply chain diversity, I think there is a largely untapped opportunity for companies to invest in women’s empowerment in order to drive both positive social impact and long-term business and economic value.”

Many women we spoke with agreed that it’s time to embrace and harness the skills and strengths that are unique to women and see them as valuable assets we can bring to our work, rather than a feminine flaw or frailty we need to bury when we’re in the office.

Embracing “feminine” qualities

Paulette Frank, vice president of sustainability for the Johnson & Johnson Family of Consumer Companies, says:

“Women’s leadership isn’t about gender. It’s about being yourself – your whole self. For me, this meant realizing that my emotions aren’t a weakness I should ‘hide’ but an asset I should share.

At a time when authenticity and inclusivity set leaders apart, I’ve learned being emotional is as valuable as being analytical – that the creative, feeling side of my brain is as important to my leadership effectiveness as the logical, thinking side of my brain. At the end of the day, with the magnitude of social and environmental challenges we face, we can’t afford to leave any tool in our tool box unused – especially the ones that make us human.”

Nancy Mancilla, cofounder of corporate social responsibility consulting firm ISOS Group and ISOS Center for Social Responsibility, agreed.

“Why aren’t there more women in leadership roles in politics and organizations? After all, we have an innate motherly instinct and tend to have a personal connection with our colleagues; we are more solutions-oriented and natural multitaskers, yet we are held back when we leave to raise children, attempt to climb the professional ladder and when equal compensation is concerned. We’re not afraid to roll up our sleeves and get to work, nor are life’s mysteries too farfetched for us to sort out.”

No more apologies

And women’s culturally-ingrained tendency to over-apologize for these strengths? That should not happen anymore, says Cecily Joseph, vice president of corporate responsibility at Symantec.

“Women’s leadership in 2015 means we are no longer just satisfied with having a seat at the table. We are not apologizing, but rather see value in the unique and diverse perspectives we as women bring to the table.”

Women’s leadership is leadership

Other women pointed out how support from men is critical in attaining gender equity and how perhaps someday we can move toward a world where we talk about leadership in general – not in terms of women’s or men’s.

Shannon Schuyler, principal and corporate responsibility leader for PwC and president of the PwC Charitable Foundation, says:

“Women’s leadership in 2015 will be disruptive, agile and purpose-driven. We need to see more women supporting other women and elevating one another in a two-way learning experience. It will also be increasingly important to include men in the conversation — not isolate or vilify them. Female leaders bring their whole selves to their careers. We are complex individuals, and that’s what positions women for leadership.”

Annie Longsworth, founder of sustainably-minded communications firm The Siren Agency, says:

“Leadership in 2015 should not be defined by gender, but by ability to lead successful enterprises that prioritize profit, employee well-being and making a positive impact. Unfortunately, at this point, women are still under-represented on boards and as CEOs, and women are still paid less than men for most jobs.

Given the effort being made by both men and women to raise awareness of the issues, however, I am hopeful that the discussion will shift away from ‘women as leaders’ to one around leadership, period.”

We have a long way to go until we reach the genderless, more merit-based concept of leadership that Longsworth hopes for. But before we see more women CEOs and perhaps a nine-woman Supreme Court, as Ruth Bader Ginsberg proposed, Meghna Tare, executive director of the Institute for Sustainability and Global Impact at the University of Texas at Arlington, offers this advice for women wishing to break through that glass ceiling in 2015 and beyond:

Be true to yourself: Women’s leadership in the world of millennials rides on the success wheels of authenticity, and communicating the vision and values in a way that shouts, ‘I care.’ Blending those values with your unique goals, ambition and qualities like empathy can be very motivating and efficacious. Leadership lives at the intersection of that spark and values.”

Stay tuned as we explore the concept of leadership, values and authenticity through the next few months in the lead-up to the Women’s Leadership Conference sponsored by MGM Resorts Foundation.

Image credit: MGM Resorts Foundation

Alexis Petru

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.