As millennials, we have coped with crises our entire adulthood. We entered the workforce during an economic crisis, we’re parenting young children through a global health crisis, and we’re experiencing our peak earning years during an unemployment crisis. On top of this, we’re watching every world-changing event in the palm of our hands, swiping between headlines about wealth disparities, racial injustice, political divisiveness and climate change. For nearly as long as we can remember, it has felt like the world is on fire.
When everything around us is burning, the most radical action we can take might be to step back and listen.
Listening may well be one of the underlying skills that differentiate female leaders globally. Whether from inherent gender differences or decades of being the underdog, women lead differently than men. Old, hierarchical models of leadership were based on power and reward. A new model is driven by empowerment, collaboration and empathy, attributes which all depend on active listening. Women’s leadership during crises, founded in empathy and compassion, drives measurable results. Empathy is a skill that can be developed, so it’s likely that gender roles, not genetics, drive the differences seen between men and women.
There is hope, if we listen.
In 2020, our headlines and our hearts bounced from #metoo to the murder of George Floyd to a contentious election, all during a global pandemic. The world was — and still is — in crisis. So we launched a great listening experiment. While doors were closed, we decided to open recording sessions. We wanted to listen to female leaders from across generations and geography to hear about their life experiences and glean their perspective about how to kickstart culture shifts and move forward more equitably.
What we heard is a roadmap to recovery.
Start by investing in education for girls.
Debborah Odenyi was raised in rural Kenya by a mother who impressed upon her the importance of getting an education. Through her own journey of becoming a single mother, a teacher, an administrator and, eventually, an education consultant for global organizations, she is a walking example of the impact of education. “Education is transformative,” Debborah says. “It actually enlightens a girl to know her potential to be able to know when and how to make decisions that are going to help her to be critical, develop a critical mind to question, to ask why, and be able to network and collaborate as she meets different people.”
Create economic opportunities as they become women.
Carly Burson is a feminist, activist and entrepreneur on a mission to construct a sustainable and ethical fashion supply chain. Partnering with more than 500 artisans around the world, she has seen firsthand the transformative impact of investing in women. Carly says “women are the pathway to alleviate poverty worldwide, based on what they do with opportunity and what they do with their income. Women invest 70% of their income into their children, into health care, into their communities, into healthy food, as opposed to 30% of their male counterparts. Giving women opportunity, they pay it forward. And that’s the only way that we’re going to break these cycles.”
Then, put women in elected positions.
Erin Loos Cutraro was a teacher before she was an activist. Compelled to close the gender gap in politics, she founded She Should Run, a nonpartisan nonprofit promoting leadership and encouraging women from all walks of life to run for public office. Optimistic about the direction we’re heading, Erin says “there is urgency around getting women into these elected roles that ultimately are going to have to build the policies that are going to pull us out of this. If those women are not in the rooms where the decisions are being made, the policies aren’t going to make sense for them, because their experiences are unique.”
Finally, let them lead as women.
The founder of Conservation Kenya and a world-renowned wildlife conservationist, Dr. Winnie Kiiru has been in the field of wildlife and environmental conservation for more than 25 years. Routinely told that women had no place in the field, she rebuilt the industry to create new systems that accommodate women to lead as women. “It’s not just a question of putting token women in position,” Dr. Kiiru explains. “It’s a question of understanding that it’s a whole ecosystem that needs to be empowering, that needs to give women the space to excel. Let’s value women. Let’s give them on merit what they deserve.”
If we’ve learned anything in the listening experiment that is Breaking Glass, it’s that, against a backdrop of divisiveness, we are experiencing a renaissance of feminism for the modern era. The new surge of feminism looks different to previous, trailblazing waves. We’re angry, yes, but we’re also seeking ways to be more collaborative, more compassionate and more effective alongside male allies. Listening to campaigns exposing deep-rooted sexism in every facet of our society and amplifying organizations driving toward a paradigm shift in women’s leadership is crucial.