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Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World

Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World

by Marie C. Wilson

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Insightful and inspiring, Closing the Leadership Gap is a call to action to increase the presence of women in powerful leadership positions in our country -- in politics as well as business. Marie C. Wilson, a leading women's advocate and founder of the White House Project, argues that even as our nation sits on a world spinning with crises, we have barely begun to


Insightful and inspiring, Closing the Leadership Gap is a call to action to increase the presence of women in powerful leadership positions in our country -- in politics as well as business. Marie C. Wilson, a leading women's advocate and founder of the White House Project, argues that even as our nation sits on a world spinning with crises, we have barely begun to tap our most critical natural resource -- women.

Rich with historical context and supported by a wealth of current data and innovative research, Closing the Leadership Gap explores the deeply ingrained political, social, and cultural factors -- including the media -- that support the resistance to women at the top. As Wilson makes clear, the issue isn't a personal one about women's ability or willingness to lead; it's about a common perception that men are leaders and women are not. But perceptions can be overcome. Closing the Leadership Gap offers prescriptions and role models of women who have mastered the challenges and requirements for leadership. These women are at the leading edge of change and can motivate all of us to take action, not just for the sake of fairness but for the sake of the larger social good.

Written with passion, documented with lively anecdotes and behind-the-scenes stories from the trenches, and filled with concrete steps that can be taken by women and men from every walk of life, this is a manifesto and a handbook that could tip the tipping point for closing the leadership gap.

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Penguin Group (USA)
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5.08(w) x 8.18(h) x 0.60(d)
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18 Years

Read an Excerpt

All of my adult life I have preached the virtues of power sharing between men and women. The arrangement seemed not only fair, but also obvious: Women populate half the democracy; we should occupy half the positions of leadership-both for gender equity and because women, a natural resource, should be mined for energy.

Now when I think of women in leadership, I think of it not only as the fair thing to do, but also as the only thing to do. In a few short years the world has become very unstable. Terrorists attacked us on our soil; in response we waged war against Afghanistan and Iraq. The formerly robust U.S. economy will soon sag under the biggest deficit in its history. Corporate greed has wiped out whole companies along with hundreds of thousands of jobs. Millions of Americans continue to live without adequate health care.

When I look at the issues we face, and when I think of the changes we need, I am as convinced as I have ever been that our future depends on the leadership of women-not to replace men, but to transform our options alongside them.

I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, when women were truly limited to a supporting role. I was Homecoming Queen and a class officer (but not the president). I was a cheerleader. I won beauty contests in my hometown of Atlanta. I married poor but with promise, then nearly went mad in the isolation of a small apartment with a baby. Through the years, while minding a growing family and the household chores, I finished my B.A. in philosophy and my master's degree in education.

My first professional job (I had been a church volunteer and had worked in the civil rights movement) was at Drake University asdirector of women's programs. To help women like me, I crafted economic development programs, job shares, and training for female "retreads" reentering the workforce after raising a family. These concepts are accepted today, but in the 1970s they were considered edgy.

I left Drake to make more money for our family of five children, several of whom were approaching college age. My experience as a social entrepreneur landed me an executive position in education and human resources with business entrepreneurs-men who were instrumental in creating the first cash machines in America. It seemed a natural fit, but it wasn't. This banking association reflected the more conservative banking community it served. My modest efforts to modernize their views of women were considered dangerous and revolutionary. They probably would have fired me if my division hadn't been making money.

If you strip away the particulars, I have led an American woman's life-running a complicated household, doing what I had to do to financially support the family, managing the home while bringing in a paycheck, and suppressing screams as my ideas were trivialized in the workplace.

It only made me trust women all the more, which was why I couldn't resist the dare of a friend to apply for the job of executive director at the Ms. Foundation for Women in New York City. I doubted those easterners would consider hiring a midwestern woman with southern roots. I was wrong. So in the mid 1980s, I left both a newly won city council seat and the banking job to run the foundation (best known for a program we created in 1993, Take Our Daughters to Work). Finally, I had found my fit, and I helped build one of the largest women's foundations in America.

At the Ms. Foundation we are social entrepreneurs with a practical eye on today and a vision for tomorrow. We take on issues that directly affect women's lives-economic development, safety, and reproductive health, for instance-which is why we knew we had to have substantial numbers of women at the top in America to help women at all levels. We saw what happened when we didn't. Hence, the White House Project, whose mission is to advance women's leadership in every sector, up to and including the presidency, changing society from a system built on the labor of women to one led equally by their vision.

Never has this been more necessary than now, when so many issues are our issues: education, health and elder care, and violence in all forms. In the past these concerns have been marginalized because of their connection to women; today, they are on everyone's agenda. And though war may not be our traditional battleground, it is the arena where women are needed most, to make and maintain the peace.

Men and women must be in power to moderate the influence of masculinity on all of us. It is this power sharing that will provide a different voice at the table, giving women the opportunity to shape policy in line with our values and giving men any permission they need to bring all of themselves to leadership, including their softer side.

Right now, for all its strides, our country is tremendously imbalanced in gender leadership. Of 435 seats in the House of Representatives, only 59 are occupied by women; of 100 senators, only 14 are women. Only 24 women have ever been governors in the United States. Women are nearly half the workforce, yet we make up only 12 percent of top executives and 15.7 percent of corporate officers; we hold a mere 12.4 percent of board seats in five hundred of the country's largest companies.

Internationally, the United States ranks sixtieth in women's political leadership, behind Sierra Leone and tied with Andorra. Even in so-called third world countries like India, huge strides have been made to bring women into power. Norway, whose parliament is 36.4 percent women, will vote soon on proposed legislation that would make the boards of every publicly traded company include at least 40 percent women by 2005. Yet here at home, despite the enormous gains we have made in the last twenty-five years, the "cultural ideal" for a woman remains that of wife and mother.

If you find this as hard to believe as I do, just look at the snail's pace of structural change that would allow women and men to fully integrate work and family. Women routinely work outside the home (mostly in low-paying jobs), yet we are still expected to be the primary caregivers, responsible for everything domestic. I truly believe that if we install enough women in leadership, they will create new policies for old institutions, shifting the burden from one set of shoulders to many, allowing women (and men) to be good parents and great leaders. And women will add their own recipe of strong values-inclusion, communication across lines of authority, the work of caring, relationship building-all of which would increase satisfaction and productivity everywhere.

But how do we get there? That's what this book is about.

It is not a scholarly work and it is not comprehensive; it is a book about experience-my experience and the lessons I've learned-backed by research conducted and gathered at the White House Project and the Ms. Foundation. It is a book of stories and facts, historical and current, with suggestions for how we might all, in our own way, put more women at the top, possibly even ourselves. If empirical data and hands-on experience have taught me anything, it is this: Change must be sweeping, and it won't be easy. When it comes to women's leadership, we live in a land of deep resistance, with structural and emotional impediments burned into the cultures of our organizations, into our society, and into the psyches and expectations of both sexes. The problem is layered, as is the solution.

That's why numbers matter. A single woman leader or a few women in a larger group are tokens; each token has to prove she's man enough for the job. We saw it played out in the seventies, as America began to deal with gender and race in the workplace. Women and minorities were scattered throughout corporations at the time-one here and one there, isolated as stereotypes, often unable to speak their minds unless they agreed with the dominant conclusion. How in the world could anyone fit in under these circumstances? Often we didn't, and it was used as proof that we shouldn't be in power. As the first and only in the workplace, we were objects of suspicion and derision.

Until there are enough diverse females in authority so that a chosen few are not expected to speak for an entire race or gender, those few will continue to carry the burden for us all. It is a fact that the more people like you in a working group, the more likely you are to be yourself. In a 2003 interview with Judy Woodruff of CNN, Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, described how she felt when Ruth Bader Ginsberg joined her on the bench: "The minute Justice Ginsberg came to the court, we were nine justices. It wasn't seven and then 'the women.' We became nine. And it was a great relief to me..."

But it is not just numbers. We also need strong civic and cultural organizations filled with women who will support their leaders-and hold them accountable. If ever we doubted that critical mass plus strong civic engagement equal lasting change, the women of South Africa put it to rest. They fought side by side with men to defeat apartheid, yet found themselves denied power once it was obtained in 1994. The women were simply not going to stand for it. They banded together their women's organizations and demanded a share of the leadership. Result: The African National Congress guaranteed women 30 percent of party seats. South Africa has moved from 141st to 15th in the world in women's political representation, with excellent legislation to show for it.

Negotiating a new deal enabling women to lead outside the home will require a new political will. We will have to reshape our country's institutions, making the environment hospitable both to women's leadership and men's blossoming domestic involvement. Imagine if America copied Norway and demanded that 40 percent of board seats in publicly funded companies be filled by women. Would we be struggling with the issues of child care or paid family medical leave? Not likely. We need to move our circles of life, public and private, into greater overlap to create one continuous community, allowing work and family to intersect the way they naturally would if our society hadn't forced them apart.

Cultural shifts require an organized effort and a woman-by-woman guerrilla campaign if we are to see change, especially as it relates to how women are represented in the media. The media provide what they think we want, which then translates to advertising and subscription dollars for their corporations. Through our buying power and our voices, we must demonstrate what we will and will not accept. We'll also occasionally need to go where no woman has gone before. For instance, I nearly lost my feminist credentials when I joined with Mattel to create a new Barbie doll. It was a case of invading the culture rather than fighting it, and using the tools of the culture to teach valuable lessons about democracy. Mattel eventually manufactured President Barbie in 2000 in several ethnicities. (But I couldn't convince them to make her shoes flat so she could stand on her own two feet.)

Culture is crucial to change because it provides role models (fictitious though some might be) for the world's power structure. We must work our way inside, even if it seems impossible, and demand that women be shown in top leadership positions. A good start would be a woman successor to Martin Sheen after he serves two terms as the president on The West Wing.

How quickly we get to critical mass also depends on changing the perception of women as leaders, and on starting to value female qualities rather than using them as an excuse to marginalize us as "work moms." In each of the following chapters, you will learn how, through guts and gumption, women have managed to outsmart the limits of our prescribed roles, providing a template for change. If enough of us follow their examples (and create our own methods of resistance), we will accelerate the movement of women into top positions.

Whenever the idea of women in leadership surfaces, one question is always asked: Will women change power or will power change women? Will women act just like men when they finally get the same opportunities? The answers are complicated. Yes, we will learn to lead like men if we are surrounded only by men; with little chance of speaking in a different and authentic voice, we will tend to join the pack. But we can and will become leaders honest to our values if we have enough support from other women and from like-minded men. Ultimately we will stand up and stand out.

Others already have. Great women, amazing women sit at the top of industry and politics, fighting the good fight. It is not as if we are starting from scratch, but as we will see from the statistics, these dynamic women are largely alone, functioning in an alien system. We must increase their numbers, give them sisters who can speak with voices aligned with their values, voices that are never lowered as they challenge the status quo and put forward unique ideas. Maybe these sisters are your sisters, or your daughters, or your best friends and mothers-or you.

But what if you don't want to be the president of the United States, or even the president of the PTA? You don't have to have a formal title to be a leader. You can stand up for yourself at work, or at the dinner table. You can volunteer for civic duty without running the show. You can write a letter to a network or to Congress, you can refuse to watch certain movies, and you can urge others to do the same. If you lead in your own life, you'll become a wave in the sea change.

Over and over, as I wondered why I felt so driven to write this book, I found myself asking, What does it mean to trust women in a country that doesn't? I revisited hundreds of polls and press clips and studies and interviews; I rehashed the points of strength and weakness in my activism; I talked to friends and family, colleagues and leaders. The deeper my research, the clearer the answer: To trust women is to trust in a different future awash with ideas and lit by the energy of all people. It means more options. It means a fairer equation. It means the work of running the planet will be easier and better for all. If we don't do it for ourselves, we should certainly do it for our daughters, who have been led to believe-by us-that there are no limits. We should also do it for our sons, whose lives are severely limited by the accepted image of what it means to be boys and men.

We are at a tipping point as the world spins in complexity searching for solutions. John Naisbitt, author of Megatrends, tells the story of the American railroads, which faded because they did not ask, "What business are we in?" They failed to see they were no longer in the railroad business but, instead, in the transportation business. If we ask a similar question, we would answer that our business is no longer just gender equity, but the more sweeping industry of societal transformation. We can change old habits; we can find new ways of doing business. We can and must mobilize to do so, each in his or her own way.

I became a leader through creativity, energy, and a little craziness. I certainly could never have imagined, from the viewpoint of that beauty queen in the fifties, that I would be where I am today. Nothing in the movies I loved or the women I admired showed me this was possible.
One old English expression describes courage as speaking your mind by telling all your heart. In the end, that is the other purpose of this book: not only to speak my heart, but also to suggest a world in which women and men are allowed to speak theirs. In that way, the cycle of change will be complete. Or, in the words of my colleague Laura Liswood of Harvard University's Council of Women World Leaders and a founder of the White House Project, it will move from "the unthinkable to the impossible to the inevitable."

1 WHY WOMEN MATTER When I first looked at this topic-why women matter and how women matter-I thought to myself, is this a question men would ask? I think not. They would ask, why does NATO matter, why does the UN matter, but they wouldn't ask why they matter.
-Laura Liswood, cofounder,
Council of Women World Leaders, Harvard University

October 1, 2002. Fortune magazine gathered the top leaders of the female business elite into a packed auditorium of the New York Stock Exchange. Powerful women-women who normally speak alone at a podium-participated on panels at a summit to discuss issues that ranged from corporate governance to foreign policy.

Among the guests: Ann Moore, chair and CEO of Time Inc.; Pat Mitchell, president and CEO of PBS; Andrea Jung, chair and CEO of Avon Products, Inc.; tennis legend Billie Jean King; House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi; Abby Joseph Cohen, managing director of Goldman, Sachs & Co.; ABC correspondent and anchor Barbara Walters; and actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith. Anna, who plays the president's national security adviser on The West Wing, could watch her real-life counterpart, Condoleezza Rice, give a keynote address that afternoon.

At a panel on leadership, former Dateline NBC anchor Jane Pauley, the moderator, put a question to Anne M. Mulcahy, chair and CEO of Xerox Corporation: Do you think there's any significance to your being a woman?

Mulcahy's answer wound its way to no. The conversation bounced from Sherry Lansing, chair of Paramount Motion Picture Group, to Geraldine Ferraro, the first and only woman candidate to run for vice president of the United States from a major party. It became clear that these gifted leaders cared deeply about the progress of women, but few connected their gender directly to their work. "All of us are in this room because we are deserving," said Lansing.

Just six months before, at the same summit (postponed from September 2001 for obvious reasons), Carleton S. (Carly) Fiorina, chair and CEO of HP, created a stir when she denied there was a glass ceiling, saying women have to play by male rules and allow themselves to be judged by male standards, that if they don't, they risk being marginalized. (In July 2003, she modified that comment, telling an audience that she has faced barriers herself and knows they exist for others, but prefers not to focus on them.) Dinner conversation at the summit raged on both sides of the debate. At the end, during a radio show, women leaders disagreed with-and yet understood-Fiorina's point.

In the words of Anne Sweeney, president of ABC Cable Networks Group and president of the Disney Channel Worldwide: "I believe we will get to the point-God knows when it will be- when we will get to Carly's point [of having people be known] as the best in your field-period, amen-not man or woman." Marie J. Toulantis, CEO of Barnes & Noble.com: "There is not a woman I have ever spoken to in any position of authority in any company that will say [being a woman] has not made a difference, that they haven't had to be twice as smart as their male counterparts, have worked ten times harder, [waited] many years longer to get the [executive] position..." She also said, "I don't think it marginalizes women to say [we're different]; it recognizes we all have different styles. We are different than men and we should celebrate it."

Do we women lead differently? Yes, we do, whether from learned responses or lack of testosterone, and it is a hot underground topic for women at the top. "This is the great unspoken truth, the new orthodoxy that every woman I have encountered acknowledges-although usually only in private or with a group of other women," says author and businesswoman Margaret Heffernan in a 2002 Fast Company article. "Their caution betrays a fear that...acknowledgment of difference will come to mean an acceptance of inequality. A fear that 'different from' will morph into 'less than.'"

And so we find ourselves wedged into stereotypes, often acting against female values, trying to fit the male definition of leadership. It has come at a cost, but it has allowed us to slowly infiltrate the locker rooms of business and politics an inch at a time.

We are finally in the Senate on our own (without succeeding a deceased husband), and we govern states and cities. A woman has been nominated for vice president, and some have served in presidential cabinets. Madeleine K. Albright, the first female secretary of state, now heads an international group of three hundred women government ministers. We run Fortune 500 companies and large universities. We are among the fastest growth groups for entrepreneurship, with a woman starting a business every sixty seconds. Offices now experiment with alternative work arrangements. In the 1990s, the number of families with stay-at-home fathers and working mothers rose by 70 percent, resulting in nearly 2 million couples in reversals of traditional roles. Working Mother magazine goes beyond naming the 100 Best Companies for Women, now also naming the Best Companies for Women of Color.

You've come a long way, baby. Or have you? Let's look at those advances through a different filter.

Women are 51 percent of the U.S. population and 47 percent of the labor force, mostly in the lower rungs. Of workers making the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour or less, 63 percent are women. We also have a "second shift": More than 60 percent of us have jobs, but we're still responsible for domestic chores and child care in four out of five marriages.

Women may start a company a minute, but these businesses rarely reach scale, let alone achieve the "status of legend." If you take a couple of zeros off the Fortune 500, you have the approximate number of female CEOs amid them: Six. Parity on Fortune 500 board seats, if the current rate continues, will be reached in sixty years. We sit on 13.6 percent of the boards of the Fortune 500; at that rate, we will still occupy only 25 percent of the seats in twenty-five years. Women who are among the top five wage earners at their companies make 68 percent of the compensation of men doing the same job. Even in the world of nonprofits, where women are thought to be doing well, we see an enormous pay gap: Women at the top, on average, earn nearly $100,000 less than their male counterparts: $170,180 compared to men's $264,602.

We are only 14 percent of the present Congress, and it took us a long time to get there. Of nearly 12,000 people to serve in the legislature since the founding of the nation in 1776, only 215 (1.8 percent) have been women (and it is a very white world; the only black female ever elected to the Senate was Carol Moseley Braun, Democrat of Illinois). We are only 12 percent of both state governors and the mayors of the one hundred largest U.S. cities. Since the nation's founding, 582 people have served at the cabinet level under presidents; only 29 of them, or about 5 percent, have been women (the first being Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins under President Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933 to 1945). Of those 29, two-thirds have served in the last decade, mostly in the administration of President Bill Clinton.

It gets worse at the state level, where the number of women in politics has been stagnant at about 20 percent for a decade. Since few U.S. presidents emerge from nowhere-they usually start in state feeder positions, then go national-the lack of women in the political pipeline is a serious issue for electing a woman to the highest office. Four of our last five presidents have been governors, and all of the last five vice presidents have served in Congress. At the rate we're going, according to the National Women's Political Caucus, we won't see political parity for more than two centuries.

It would seem, then, that we still have a long way to go. Few women in top leadership, and a pipeline barely wet with them, translates directly into unilateral male choices for how we live, and that's not good. In the words of the Reverend Patricia Kitchen, a pastor at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, we need a nation of "otherism."

"For over 200 years, the United States has been steered by male leadership who tend to lead from a 'self-centered, self-preservation' perspective. (Wars declared prematurely. Inhumane tax structures adopted. Environmental disregard. Labor practices which devalue workers. Third world sweatshops that crush the souls of foreign labor...all seem to serve powerful 'self' interests)," she said. "Women around the world are inclined to lead, their families and nations, from an 'other- centered' perspective."

Despite the dangers and complexities of the world-growing armed conflicts and mounting debt, corporate irresponsibility and worldwide health crises-men don't have to give it up or go it alone. All they have to do is share power and let women help, as equals.

A World of Difference
The core of what women bring to leadership-a tendency toward greater inclusiveness, empathy, communication up and down hierarchies, focus on broader issues-makes stronger government and richer business. I saw it myself during my first decades of paid work and community service. Then it started to be named.

The first time I saw the argument in one place was 1990, when Sally Helgesen published her book The Female Advantage. Its broadly acclaimed central thesis: Women's skill in relationships-that ability to build webs of inclusion-was better for business than the traditional system, which concentrated power in the hands of the few.

For her research Helgesen collected information in a diary while following women executives through their workdays. Using the diary style allowed her both to identify commonalities and to compare her women to male leaders studied in the same way in 1968 by management scientist Henry Mintzberg.

Here is some of what Mintzberg found in the men he studied: an unrelenting work pace with little time for other activity, heavy identity with the job, and difficulty sharing information. Helgesen found almost the opposite in women: steady workers who also made time for on-the-job breaks and nonwork activities, who saw their jobs as only one aspect of themselves, and who scheduled time to share information in the office.

As Helgesen says, women focused on the "ecology of leadership," managing longer range. And though both genders are oriented toward the big picture, there's a difference when it comes to women: "It encompasses a vision of society-[women] relate decisions to their larger effect upon the role of the family, the American education system, the environment, even world peace."

Management guru Thomas J. Peters, coauthor of the best-selling In Search of Excellence, agrees. He sees women as more relational, less conscious of hierarchy, better listeners, and more able to avoid the aggression men can sometimes bring to management. In fact, he published a booklet in 2001 entitled Women Roar, and here is how he describes it on his Web site (capitalization is his): "The evidence is clear! (1) WOMEN ARE BETTER LEADERS THAN MEN (under the conditions of the New Economy) (2) WOMEN ARE THE WORLD'S BIGGEST MARKET OPPORTUNITY (BY FAR)...and are wildly underserved...Our story: WOMEN ROAR. WOMEN RULE."

As far back as 1982, when Excellence was first published, Peters and his writing partner Robert H. Waterman Jr. put forward a womanlike set of management principles (though they were not identified as such at the time). More than twenty years later we have a refined Peters principle: "Women as the new economy's natural leaders." With tongue in cheek, he even suggested to an audience of radio executives in 2001 that they fire their male salespeople. "It may be against the law, but you'll be rich." He's convinced the future belongs to women: "This [women] thing is bigger than the Internet."

Before there was an Internet, before there was television-in fact, before talking movies- there was Mary Parker Follett, who may quite possibly be ground zero in the study of female- oriented management theory. I found out about her when I read a 2001 Wellesley College study on women's leadership. Follett wrote Creative Experience in 1924, a book that "extolled the virtues of collaboration, coordination, sharing power and information...empowering the workforce as opposed to having power over them." Follett saw a work world filled with interconnections. Of course, when she spoke on the topic (which was often), she would have been addressing men, since there were virtually no women leading at that time. Follett, being a woman of her own era, also didn't point out that these qualities were most often found in females; she "simply advocated the democratic, participatory style as more effective and more sound from a business perspective."

Follett's theme of collaboration has been replicated in management literature through the years. In fact, after World War II, leadership ideas very similar to hers were introduced in Japan with great enthusiasm, and they became a centerpiece of the "Japanese style." In the 1980s, this style was introduced with relish to the British and Americans; little did they know its female origins.

I remember those times well. I was director of women's programs at Drake then, helping the Des Moines business community to integrate women, whose primary experience had been in the home and community, into the workplace. The very men who impatiently asked why my "retreads" couldn't make a decision without consensus rushed to hire experts on Japanese quality circles, where workers were personally consulted about process and production. It would have been funny if it hadn't also been frustrating for the women: These men valued a so-called foreign system while devaluing the same system when it was practiced right under their noses by women.

Times have changed. Now male CEOs speak freely about their emotional intelligence, or EQ, a concept popularized in a 1995 book by Daniel Goleman that refers to components like sensitivity to others and communication skills. I heard Goleman talk about his best seller shortly after its release, and I asked him, "Aren't you largely describing women's intelligence?" He hedged, gave a nod to my point, and said half kiddingly that he wanted the book to sell. Goleman confirmed my suspicion that intelligent men knew these characteristics were very female and, therefore, very risky to embrace as such-unless you don't mind being devalued.

In the Wellesley study that resurrected Follett, sixty executive women from all walks talked about how women lead differently: They are better communicators and listeners, more nurturing, more willing to involve others in decision making, and more likely to roll up their sleeves and work with the team. They described women as having "a much stronger sense of connectedness to others and of being part of the whole. [They] are much more gratified by leadership that involves creating a shared purpose, with the leader being part of that whole."

A root of learning for them: mothering. As a leader said, "One of the best training grounds for leadership is motherhood...if you can manage a group of small children, you can manage a group of bureaucrats. It's almost the same process..." Of those who said family was both a crucial support and a source of inspiration, all describe strong parents and grandparents: "She [grandmother] had very definite opinions about people's responsibility to contributing back to family and back to the community." One told of a father who had "an ability that you don't recognize as greatness until you're without it, which is [that] he reflected greatness in whomever he was with. He made someone else feel that they were terrific." Several of the African American women spoke of parents who cared so completely that they founded whole organizations to provide experiences their children couldn't get anywhere else, such as a swim club for a girl who couldn't use the public pool.

Elected female leadership, even the little we've had, has made a tremendous difference in politics. Prominent research groups-among them the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University and the Women & Politics Institute at American University-have spent decades studying the values women bring to that arena, both in how issues are discussed and in the legislation that follows. Women, they discovered, tend to include diverse viewpoints in decision making, have a broader conception of public policy, and offer new solutions. Females also define "women's issues" more broadly than most of their male colleagues, and they put these issues at the top of the legislative agenda-bills dealing with children, education, and health care, for instance.

Women in politics tend to be collegial and collaborative, rather than hierarchical. Female chairs, for example, used their leadership positions to encourage committee members to talk with one another rather than trying to personally control and direct the debate. We are often more responsive to constituent requests, and we follow through on them. We are also more likely to include disadvantaged groups in legislation. Strikingly, Republican women are more likely than Democratic men to work on bills benefiting women. Male politicians who were interviewed for the study agreed with the conclusions. After years of community and family involvement, women had learned to act on the "local" model, and it worked.

Maybe all those coffee klatches finally paid off. Democratic and Republican women of the Senate meet every month for dinner, often crossing party lines to pass legislation of importance to women. As Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) reminds us, "Nobody fought for homemakers to have retirement accounts until we [women] did in the Senate in 1993, for God's sake." Her Senate colleague Olympia J. Snowe (R-ME), said, "We developed the Women's Health Equity Act...created an Office of Women's Health Research at the National Institutes of Health...We did not allow our differing views on abortion or our partisan affiliations to get in the way." Other legislation critical to the health of the republic-the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Child Support Enforcement Act-were muscled to the top by the bipartisan Congressional Women's Caucus.

It is probably fair to say that the men in Congress, a clear majority, would not have made these issues a priority without the prodding of their few female colleagues. Senator Hutchison clarifies, "It wasn't that men were against these changes. They just hadn't considered the issue before because they hadn't experienced the problem in their own lives. As women have become a part of the system, that's changing."

Eleanor Holmes Norton, delegate to the House of Representatives from Washington, D.C., says, "Numbers matter not for numbers' sake, but for women's sake." Yes, they do, but we could also say numbers matter for everyone's sake. Recent research has shown a direct correlation between the number of women in a legislative body and the passage of bills benefiting women and children. However, we would need at least 15 percent of legislators to be women for a likelihood that family-friendly bills would pass. The U.S. Congress is currently 14 percent women.

Lessons from Abroad
Iceland, October 24, 1975. More than 90 percent of the women (mostly homemakers) went on strike, and the country was brought to its knees. It was described then as a "women's day off," and was originally meant as a marker for the beginning of the United Nations Decade for Women. In fact, it lives in legend as one of the most successful and swiftest social movements of all time. The strike resulted in quite a few world firsts, including the first equality legislation and the first woman president. Five years after the strike, in 1980, Vigdis Finnbogadottir was elected president, and she served until her retirement in 1996. Former President Finbogadottir likes to tell of boys who asked their mothers during her long term if men could be president of Iceland.

Women now hold at least 30 percent of the seats in the parliaments of fourteen countries, and twenty-two women are speakers of parliaments. There are seventeen women heads of state. Wales recently reached full parity between women and men in the legislature. Women in seven European countries have achieved critical mass of about a third in their parliaments: Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland, the Netherlands, and Germany. A few other things these countries have in common: almost equal enrollment between boys and girls in all levels of education, comparable rates of illiteracy between both genders in the age range from fifteen to twenty-four years, and pay that is roughly equal.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union, a worldwide organization that serves as a focal point for parliamentary discussions on a broad range of issues, researched women's involvement in government and found that it brings about shifts in political behavior and priorities. Women overseas have promoted human rights issues that directly affect their lives: violence, trafficking in women, equality in marriage and parenthood, equal pay, and reproductive choice. But they don't stop there-they also raise quality-of-life issues affecting everyone, including the protection of natural resources, access to fresh water, nutrition, human rights, and protection for the destitute.

Most important, women are bringing fresh perspectives to peace building. It is not a skill new to us; it is simply not commonly acknowledged. For instance, the women of Northern Ireland have cleared the way for talks between Protestants and Catholics by bringing together key players to mediate in the strife. The women of the Sudan helped secure humanitarian aid by negotiating access directly with rebels. The women of India and Pakistan, aware of shared history amid the threat of nuclear war, have organized conventions each year to affirm their connection. As former President Bill Clinton said when the Camp David talks between the Palestinians and Israelis failed in 2000, "If we had women at Camp David, we'd have an agreement."

The United Nations is also catching on. In 2000, the Security Council issued Resolution 1325, urging the expanded role of women in field operations, "especially among military observers, civilian police, human rights workers and humanitarian personnel." Secretary-General Kofi Annan said to the council, "For generations, women have served as peace educators, both in their families and in their societies. They have proved instrumental in building bridges rather than walls."

Meet the Author

Marie C. Wilson is cofounder and president of the White House Project, which she launched to advance women's leadership in all sectors. She was president of the Ms. Foundation for Women for more than twenty years, through which she cocreated Take Our Daughters to Work Day. A frequent guest speaker, she has been quoted in numerous national news outlets.

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