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They’re leading the way as leaders, futurists and change makers
By NANCY SY SIM-LIM
The women leaders of the past – Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale and Queen Victoria to name a few – are today replaced by the likes of Angela Merkel, Sheryl Sandberg and Meg Whitman. What is unsettling for many of us is the fact that as much as we hear stories of women achieving success around the globe and making an impact, we still hear stories of prejudice, discrimination and struggle.
Yes, women in general have advanced beyond our wildest measures. But do we feel capable of negotiating a better and more secure future for ourselves? Do we believe we can control our destiny? Do we have the power to shape and mould the journey of younger women to come?
To answer these questions, what signs do we need to look out for? And how can we lean into the challenge and help ourselves on this journey?
Women in positions of power
Consider the role of women in politics today. From Figure 1, you see the percentage of women currently holding seats in Cabinet in different countries across the globe.
Consider the first Industrial Revolution and the suffragette movement, as aptly depicted by the British historical period drama film, Suffragette, starring Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep. It was a fight for equality. It was a fight for the right to vote.
A turning point in many ways, this movement demonstrates how women have been contributing to the development of human capital and society in every step of the way, through many stages of negotiation for freedom and equal rights.
Women continue to do much of the same in modern society today. Whether this is represented by their advocacy for childhood education, healthcare reform, lack of economic opportunity or outer space research, women are showing each other and the world how they are capable of equipping themselves to face shifting mega trends, technological disruption and the growing gig economy.
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The question we must ask ourselves today though is whether we still feel we need to negotiate our rights. Have we claimed our power and voice? Is there more to be done?
Across the world, from the East to the West, we’ve seen a focus on placing more women in leadership roles. While this continues to be a challenge, there is progress being made.
Take the United Kingdom (UK), for example. The Hampton-Alexander Review is an independent review body which builds on the excellent work of the Davies Review to increase the number of women on Financial Times Stock Exchange boards in the UK. In Malaysia, the 30% Club was launched in 2015 by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak to help the country achieve its target of tripling the percentage of women on company boards to 30% by 2016.
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What does this mean to professional women today?
Would we go so far as to endorse the headline in internationally-recognised executive coach, Lois P. Frankel’s book, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers? This New York Times bestseller, considered a must-have for women in business, reveals a distinctive set of behaviours that can ultimately sabotage women. Certainly, Jessica Pearson (played by Gina Torres), managing partner of Pearson Specter Litt of the USA Network’s Suits series shows us that women can indeed have the corner office.
The changing role of women: moving from power to purpose
Part of the success women enjoy is due to their recognition of the power they wield in decision-making.
This makes a McKinsey Global Institute 2015 report all the more interesting. The report, The Power of Parity: How Advancing Women’s Equality Can Add $12 Trillion to Global Growth, focuses on the economic implications for lack of parity between men and women, highlighting how women contribute to 37% of the world’s global gross domestic product (GDP).
This is a staggering number.
In fact, it reported that if every country matched the progress towards gender parity of its fastest-improving neighbour, global GDP could increase by up to $12 trillion in 2025. Now, this is something everyone – individuals, organisations and society at large – should sit up and take notice of.
From choosing the types of crops to plant, career pathways to explore, where her family should live or relocate as well as decisions for the family that touch on health, education, finance and insurance and much more, the role of women in decision-making has been earned progressively and quietly. And the global success of women across a range of fields cannot be ignored.
In politics, we have Hillary Clinton, Government official and former United States First Lady; Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia; Tarja Halonen, former President of Finland; and Kamla Persad-Bissessar, former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago.
In activism, it ranges from Gloria Steinem and Malala Yousafzai to Rosa Parks, from Margaret Atwood and Victoria Woodhull to Huda Sha’arawi. In sports, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Serena Williams, Billie Jean King and Sonja Henie. In the sciences, Marie Curie, Dian Fossey and Ada Lovelace. The list goes on and on.
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These successful women have evolved from the traditional roles thrust upon them into roles that hold meaning for them. They have fought their battles. They have carved their rightful place, whether in politics, sports or business.
Developing competencies for the future
Continued evolution requires developing competencies and skillsets in new areas – areas previously unchartered and areas driven by mega trends. In today’s business world where companies struggle to keep afloat, and focus is often on short-term gain and quick growth, we need a whole new set of skills to navigate our future.
As Albert Einstein fittingly pointed out:
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Nathan Bennett, author of Your Career Game, and G. James Lemoine, a doctoral candidate at Georgia Institute of Technology’s Scheller College of Business introduced the concept of VUCA (stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) in the managerial term to relate to the era of disruption we face and the disruption that impacts us across every facet of our lives – the way we work, live, pay and travel.
For women to understand how best to manage this VUCA environment, we need a better grasp of the mental toolkit and skillset to possess (See Figure 3).
Women ultimately want to be valued for their unique yet compelling approach. Also, they want a more equitable future in every aspect of their lives.
Who is the woman of today?
She is more mobile and technologically-savvy in this global landscape.
She desires a cleaner, safer world to live in, for which she embraces climate change and the pressing need to build sustainable communities and a sustainable environment.
She wants a better life for her children – our children.
She wants a better workplace.
She wants better quality of education.
She wants better access, better opportunities and more transparency across the board.
She wants to support marginalised communities.
The woman of today seeks leadership skills that will influence her decisions, empower her to define and then enact the life she wants to live, rather than a passive acting out of the only life she’s been led to believe is the one for her.
So what does this entail?
She needs new platforms that open up access, freedom of information and innovative ways of thinking. She wants new connections and conversations that help her move forward in the direction she seeks. Not to mention, new partnerships and support for mutual growth, too.
Susan Packard advocates gamesmanship in her recent book, New Rules of the Game: 10 Strategies for Women in the Workplace. It’s the same kind of competitiveness found in sports and video games. She delves into how men achieve creativity, optimism, teamwork and competitive spirit. She encourages women to step up in terms of gamesmanship, to compete outwardly and not fear the imposter syndrome. She suggests that women should also accept losing well and take a lighter attitude towards life in general.
What are some of the leadership skills women need to have?
- Be mindful of what you’ve achieved and how far you’ve come. Be mindful that you need not achieve everything.
- Create a more sustainable society through better use of land and resources – this is something that can only be achieved from a position of influence.
- With more than 70% of global firms listed on the Standard & Poor’s (S&P) questioning talent and succession, it is a debate that we, as women, cannot avoid.
- Be adaptive. Be agile towards all the changes happening around you.
- Understand that power and authority can only be obtained if women support one another from cradle to boardroom.
Essentially, mastery of these skills will lead towards better defining the role and purpose of women, which in turn, will lead to the elevation of these critical issues on a global scale.