It’s Time for a New Definition of Leadership

By Holly C. Corbett   |   May 20, 2024

Change doesn’t just happen overnight; we must make it happen. Solving gender equity issues, as well as effectively navigating other pressing challenges that lay before us, from climate change to ethics in AI to threats to democracy, will require a new definition of leadership that accounts more for the good of the people and planet. It will also require leaders who more accurately reflect the demographics of the people they represent.

“If you look at the evidence that is gathering from all over the world about women leading in every sector – from governance to grassroots leadership – what you find is that women tend to have higher relational intelligence that considers the good of the whole,” said Nina Simons, co-founder of Bioneers and author of Nature, Culture and The Sacred: A Woman Listens For Leadership, during an interview for a 2023 Forbes article. “At this time of ecological and social change, upheaval and danger, those are tremendously valuable assets that women bring to leadership.”

Yet in 2024, fully half of the world’s population remains vastly underrepresented in positions of power across business, government, and culture at large. While the number of women at the helm of Fortune 500 companies hit a record high, the representation of women CEOs currently still stands at only about 10% – and just two of those CEOs are Black women.

So what is holding women back from stepping into these top positions of power? The barriers are varied and multifaceted but include the “broken rung,” which refers to the fact that women – and especially women of color – are less likely to be promoted into management positions than their white male counterparts. There is the motherhood penalty: Mothers are paid less than fathers, and 23% of working mothers report they have been passed over for a promotion because they have children. Additionally, there is the issue that women traditionally have had less access to mentors, sponsors, and support networks.

“Women and girls represent half of the world’s population and therefore also half of its potential,” says Denise Dunning, founder and executive director of Rise Up, a nonprofit that partners with women, girls, and allies who are transforming their communities and countries to advance justice and equity. “Gender inequality persists, however, and prevents social progress and costs national economies trillions of dollars annually.”

Jocelyn Mangan, founder and CEO of Him For Her, a social impact organization that connects women leaders with board opportunities, believes boardrooms – where just 16% of board directors are women, and only 4% are women of color – are the most important rooms in business.

“It’s really about if a room [such as a boardroom] has influential decision-making power, which it does, would you want one filled with groupthink or with cognitive diversity?” says Mangan.

If we had more women in key decision-making positions – from boardrooms to C-suites to the government – it stands to reason that we would be better equipped to tackle issues such as the gender and racial wage gap, ongoing gender and racial discrimination in the workplace, the pervasiveness of gender-based violence, the lack of national paid leave, and the shortage of affordable childcare.

In the pages of this chapter, you will read about women who are stepping up to be the change they want to see in the world, all while lifting up others along with them. They are taking action and simultaneously inspiring others to do the same.

“[When it comes to] gender issues, equality issues, healthcare issues, the changing role of women, lack of financial support for childcare, climate change – this whole basket of issues – you can’t just stand on a corner with a sign, because nothing is going to change as a result of that,” says Linda Crompton, president and CEO of Leadership Women, a nonprofit pushing for equal opportunities and participation for women in leadership at all levels of decision-making.

 It’s also important to note that simply reaching equal representation in leadership is not enough to achieve gender equity; we also must change the systems that perpetuate inequities.

“Despite progress in the fight for gender equity, major systemic barriers prevent girls and women from realizing their full potential,” says Dunning. “Around the world, millions cannot fully participate in the economy; are underrepresented in government, education, and leadership roles; and lack access to economic opportunity, education, and essential health services. Local leaders in communities around the world are working to uproot these systems of oppression, but they face overwhelming challenges.”

Joanne N. Smith, founder and executive director of Girls for Gender Equity, believes that centering the most marginalized among us benefits everyone and that the solutions to inequities should be led by those most in the margins.

“We need to interrupt the systems of oppression that invisible-ize Black girls, and create ways in which their voices, experience, safety, innovation, and creativity are at the center of services, policy, practice, and culture,” says Smith.

The women-led nonprofits amplified in these pages are creating pathways for more women to lead. The nonprofits are doing this by giving women tools to confront the barriers and biases they face, by building networks so women can lift up other women as they rise, and by driving solutions through a gender lens to some of the biggest problems of our time.

In order to successfully navigate gender equity issues, the new face of leadership must include people who identify as women, people who reflect the diversity that makes up our world, in equal numbers and with equal influence.

When we amplify, support, and offer resources to women who are leading organizations that are creating community and cultivating more leaders, it creates a ripple effect of change.

When leaders of companies close the gender and racial wage gap, they are better able to attract and retain talent. When governments and companies put in place policies that better support caregivers, it boosts the GDP. When leaders hold people accountable for sexual harassment, workplaces become safer environments for all.

For the health of our people, our communities, our government, and our very democracy, women must be equally represented in leadership positions. Only then will we create a tipping point where we truly give “power to the people.”