Women as Global Leaders: Challenges & Strategies for Getting to the Top

By Susan R. Madsen and Faith Wambura Ngunjiri

In this article, Susan R. Madsen and Faith Wambura Ngunjiri discuss the challenges facing women in global leadership roles. Drawing on research found in their newly released book titled Women as Global Leaders, Madsen and Ngunjiri highlight the unique qualities that women bring to global leadership roles and provide advice and strategies for maximising those qualities successfully.

Towards the end of 2014‭, ‬the world watched in wonder as Malala Yousafzai was crowned the Nobel Peace Prize winner‭ – ‬the youngest‭ ‬person‭, ‬male or female‭, ‬to ever win the award‭. ‬Malala was catapulted to the global stage when she was shot and almost killed by‭ ‬the Taliban due to her advocacy for education rights for girls in Pakistan‭. ‬Malala stands as one of the youngest exemplars of women as global leaders‭, ‬as her activist leadership transcends the borders of race‭, ‬class‭, ‬gender and nation‭. ‬She is one of the global women leaders profiled in our recent book‭ ‬Women as Global Leaders‭,‬1‭ ‬along with Professor Wangari Maathai‭, ‬Aung San Sun Kyi‭, ‬Margaret Thatcher‭, ‬Golda Meir‭, ‬and others‭. ‬We believe‭ – ‬and our contributing authors agree‭ – ‬that these trailblazers provide extraordinary examples worth exploring and learning from‭. ‬


Another trailblazing global woman leader, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, has continued to make headlines in the past few years by popularising the topic of women and leadership with her provocative book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Citing both personal experience and social science research, Sandberg argues that there are still external barriers for women in attaining positions of authority and influence. However, women must rise to the challenge and address what some term “internal barriers”. Sandberg contends that men still run the world even though many women have the skills to lead. Yet, whether attributed to women limiting their own options, societal norms that discourage women from rising to the top, or lack of supportive organisational structures, challenges continue to keep women from positions of authority in nations and organisations.

In our book, Professor Nancy Adler from McGill University in Canada argues that we have yet to fully grasp what women can bring to society as global leaders. In her chapter ‘Women Leaders: Shaping History in the 21st Century’, Adler provides exhaustive lists to demonstrate the trends in leadership whereby women serve as heads of countries or CEOs of companies around the world. Her study demonstrates that, indeed, there has been some progress made. In fact, of the 126 women who have served as president or prime minister of a country, 30 have come to power in the past four years of this decade. As of this writing, women currently hold 4.6% of CEO positions at Standard and Poor 500 companies, a total of 23 women, while four women are running FTSE 100 companies. Although there is evidence of progress, the numbers highlight that very few women are serving in global leadership roles.


What is Global Leadership?

The research reported in our book indicates that, to be a global leader, a woman must influence followers’ attitudes and behaviours in a global context in order to achieve a common vision and goal, utilising competencies such as a global perspective or mindset, intercultural competency, behavioural adaptability, cultural intelligence, emotional intelligence and social intelligence. To comprehend womens’ roles as global leaders, it is important to understand the approaches that women use to lead effectively as global leaders, such as utilising multiple intelligences and authentic leadership. Furthermore, we need to understand programmes and initiatives that focus on developing women into global leaders and learn from those leaders who already exist. We need clear articulations of current demographic realities, struggles, challenges and opportunities that are now before us, as well as fresh new thinking about how progress can and must be made.


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