How Women Gain Power

Far and away, women who rise to power come from families where fathers encourage their education in and out of school and where mothers take leaderships roles themselves.

A female prime minister in Bangladesh. A female tech CEO in India. A female non-profit innovator in South Dakota.

You’d think the only thing these powerful women have in common is their anatomy. But journalist Sharmilla Ganesan, writing for The Atlantic magazine, looked deeper wanting to see if there were deeper commonalities. Figuring that out, she writes, “could reveal not the fundamental, essential nature of female leadership, but how women in leadership are perceived around the world, and perhaps more importantly, the obstacles women continue to face in their quest for equal representation.”

What Ganesan discovered surprised her. Powerful women didn’t necessarily have trust funds or MBAs or access to networks of existing power brokers. Instead, their success in leadership started at the family dinner table.

When Dads Ask and Moms Do

Far and away, women who rise to power come from families where fathers encourage their education in and out of school and where mothers take leaderships roles themselves.

Ganesan writes, “All of my interviewees pointed to the family environment they had been raised in - particularly a father figure who taught and empowered the women in the family to learn, ask questions, and form their own opinions - as a key factor in their own growth. This, coupled with mothers or other older women who broke convention by displaying leadership within the family, was common source of early lessons on leadership.”

A separate research inquiry by Susan R. Madsen of Utah Valley University found the same thing. Madsen interviewed women in China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) about their paths to leadership. 

She found that “‘...every single one of them talked about finding their voices and their confidence at dinner-table conversations with their families. Their parents talked about politics, about what was happening in the community, and when the women had something to say, their parents didn’t hush them.’” In the UAE, every single female leader interviewed said that “her father brought home books for her to read when he traveled, which most other people didn’t have.” 

Ganesan herself interviewed three women leaders from Uganda, Tunisia, India. They, too, pointed to a father figure who encouraged their education and a mother who educated and led herself as their formative forces. 

From the dinner table to the board room

Because leadership qualities and experiences start in the home, Ganesan notes, women’s paths to leadership often start there in adulthood too. She calls it a “grassroots” approach, where a family or community problem pushes a woman to evolve into a leadership role - say, to protect a water supply or change legislation around social services - which give them skills that transfer to running an organization. 

This pattern can make paths to leadership different for women than men, even in advanced economies. Ganesan quotes Madsen's observation that “men are more strategic and [tend to follow] a more linear path to becoming a leader. Women’s paths are much more emergent. They tend to not necessarily look ahead and think, ‘I want to be on top.’ Women would point to a number of experiences - motherhood, or working with a non-profit, or sitting on a board, as shaping their path to becoming leaders,” she said. 

Women’s leadership development, then, might not look like exactly BA to internship to MBA to junior vice president to COO. However, the skills and wisdom you gain from childhood through adulthood experiences might, in fact, make you a powerful leader, if you recognize, value, and broadcast them.
And the gist of all this research? Forget the formal resume. Instead, ask your next high profile job candidate what she talked about over dinner when she was 12.

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