Inspiring Women Leaders

Inspiring Women Leaders

Inspiring Women Leaders

An op-ed by Fleur Heyworth, Head of Gender and Inclusive Security at the GCSP.

By Ms Fleur Heyworth, Head of Gender and Inclusive Security

Four years after the first women’s leadership course at the GCSP, initiated by Ambassador Pamela Hamamoto (U.S.) and Ambassador Kok Jwee Foo (Singapore), the Inspiring Women Leaders course has developed in Geneva and expanded to Ghana and Kosovo. Participants from governments, parliaments, the armed forces, rule of law institutions, international organisations and civil society – including the private sector – have come together to share their challenges and develop the mindsets, skills and tools needed for women to lead more effectively in the environments in which they live. Our understanding of what it takes to succeed in this endeavour has grown – and what we have learnt is presented below.

Many of our course participants experience the so-called “glass ceiling” effect: they want to be able to lead and exert influence effectively in a male-dominated environment while being their authentic selves, whether in an organisation, a political party or civil society, but are unable to reach the highest positions in such an environment. They want to have impact and drive positive change, become more visible, and have their voices heard.  Courageous participants who are living in conflict or post-conflict environments are fighting hard for their rights, for a more fair and just society, and for sustainable, inclusive peace and development. Across sectors, women are juggling family and work priorities, and having to make hard choices and difficult compromises. Some are already living according to their values; others want to transition into a more meaningful career or more supportive environment. 

Our community is already shifting perceptions, modelling new ways of leading, and lifting up women and men with them. Two participants even received phone calls during our courses in 2017 and 2018 to say that their colleagues and friends Beatrice Fihn of ICAN and Nadia Murad had won the Nobel Peace Prize! However, the landscape is not even, and while advances are being made in gender equality in some areas, there is stagnation or regression in others. Better understanding of this landscape is a precursor to better leading and shaping it.


The landscape 

Marilyn Loden apparently coined the term “glass ceiling” in 1978 to describe an intangible but very real barrier that prevents women and minorities from obtaining higher positions in a hierarchy. Four decades later many women have smashed the glass ceiling, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany; Frederica Mogherini, who served as EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and as European Commission Vice-President; Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina; Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet; and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was recently president of Liberia. However, women remain significantly under-represented in leadership positions across sectors:


Do numbers really matter? The simple answer to this question is undoubtedly “Yes”. Since before the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995 research has indicated that a minimum of 30 per cent representation is a critical threshold for a minority group to have a transformative effect on the dominant culture. Below that figure it is difficult for individuals to behave in ways that are not governed by group norms. While the figure of 30 per cent has become a benchmark for parliaments and company boards in many countries, others are striving for 50 per cent women representation, and looking beyond women as a homogeneous demographic to include cognitive diversity and diversity of age, ethnicity, gender identity and disability in order to foster greater creativity and innovation.

Secondly, seeing is believing. Perceptions of what it means to be a leader are significantly impacted by role models and gendered roles and norms within society. Women have been socialised not to see themselves as leaders in public spaces, across numerous cultures and in many religions, or are not seen by others as leaders. Of course, exceptions such as Cleopatra, Eva Péron and Indira Gandhi exist, but overt and subtle gender bias and sexist attitudes have become embedded in our mental models and cultural representations to create an image of a “leader” as having high status, and being assertive, ambitious, self-confident and in control. This is an image more often associated with men, as the recent photo of leaders at the G20 summit shows.

G20 Osaka Summit 2019


Men’s higher status has been privileged for centuries by laws and norms, whereas women have been associated with traditionally feminine values such as being loving, helpful, friendly, sympathetic, gentle and softly spoken. Interparliamentary Union research suggests that more than 65 per cent of women in parliaments have been subjected to sexist remarks decades after they achieved the right to represent their fellow citizens in these parliaments. Furthermore, when considering peace and security, militarised security and interstate rivalry can impact societal attitudes about women and the characteristics sought in leaders. This leads to higher levels of sexism and the privileging of stereotypical masculine characteristics of “aggression, strength and rationality”, which are the traits perceived as best able to ensure national security, but which also ensure women’s under-representation in politics.5

When women challenge stereotypical gender roles, they often experience a double bind: they are seen as competent, but not likeable; they are judged as being too soft or too tough. They are 2.5 times more likely to be perceived as aggressive rather than assertive, despite exhibiting similar behaviours to men. They also experience a higher competence threshold in terms of which they are consistently asked to “prove it again”, are promoted for their performance while men are promoted for their potential, or are required to meet higher standards for lower rewards.6 It is unsurprising, therefore, that women often experience a confidence gap.


Finally, if women are not represented within organisations, law-making bodies and policy-making institutions, then hidden barriers to their progress remain in place. The World Bank’s report on Women, Business and the Law 2019: A Decade of Reform indicates that 131 economies have made 274 reforms to laws and regulations, but only six (all European) countries have an equal legislative landscape. Hundreds of discriminatory laws continue to inhibit women’s ability to travel independently, own land, access a bank account and credit, and be protected from harassment, abuse or pay inequality. Even if appropriate laws against such discrimination do exist, the reporting of crimes and the implementation and enforcement of these laws are strongly influenced by culture, bias, and the lack of women’s representation in law enforcement institutions, particularly at senior levels.

The World Economic Forum’s annual The Global Gender Gap Report 2018 states that the world is 202 years from achieving gender parity in the workplace. Across regions women provide twice to five times more unpaid care than men. Furthermore, many working environments are not adapted to enable the sharing of care, and fail to implement parental leave policies, to offer flexible working hours, or to ensure the availability, affordability and quality of adequate childcare.7 Organisational cultures and societal norms leave many women juggling responsibilities at home and work; sometimes the conditions are so tough that they drop out of the workplace.


Redefining and reshaping the landscape

The picture is not all gloomy.  In communities, the media, culture and institutions women and men are redefining social norms, values and cultural attitudes. The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), an international human rights treaty adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, has been ratified by 189 states. Civil society groups are lobbying their governments to adopt the concrete measures recommended by the CEDAW Committee. In areas ranging from guaranteeing women’s education, health, employment, marriage and land rights to ensuring that women are protected from violence, trafficking, and the male-centred culture shaping their role in public and political life, the framework for change is growing stronger.

In the year 2000 civil society successfully lobbied the UN Security Council to create the Women, Peace and Security Agenda and change the narrative in violent conflict from women as victims to women as agents of change. Eight resolutions around the four pillars of prevention, protection, participation, relief and recovery are contributing to the development of policies and practices. Greater value is being placed on the experiences and opinions of women who are marginalised or excluded from formal organisations and processes. Leaders such as Julienne Lusenge, a human rights activist supporting wartime survivors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are being recognised and celebrated.


Canada and France have joined Sweden’s decision to implement feminist foreign policies and gender parity in cabinets. For the first time New Zealand is challenging the model of economic growth and GDP to measure the nation’s success and is instead focusing on the levels of well-being of its people, looking at factors such as cultural identity, the environment, income and consumption, and social connection. While the work women do, including unpaid care work, is not recognised as having the same economic value as the work men do, many countries are developing more progressive social policies. The Buenos Aires Declaration on Women and Trade is a move towards more gender-responsive trade policies.

Less formally, the information and technology revolutions of recent decades have created power in networks and collaborative spaces that is challenging hierarchical and patriarchal structures. #MeToo created spaces for an unprecedented number of women to speak out against sexism, harassment and abuse in public spaces, workplaces and homes. Women continue to march for equality in cities around the world. And the younger generation, embodied in young leaders like Greta Thunberg, is challenging us all to change our behaviours, practices and leadership in order to address the pressing global challenge of climate change.

There is still a long way to go: power and resources continue to be concentrated in the hands of a few, mainly men. There are areas of polarisation and regression, particularly around sexual and reproductive rights. However, the evidence that we need to develop gender-equitable and gender-responsive policies, programmes, and workplaces is mounting. The impact of bias on our behaviour and the social and technological systems we design is recognised, and organisations are seeking more diverse teams who can offer fresh perspectives, experiences, and ways of thinking and acting. The need for women to shape our world side by side with men is clear.

Collectively, we are redefining the notion of “leader” and leadership.  Many are calling for “power with” or “power to” rather than “power over”.  The UN’s 2017 leadership framework states:

The challenges that confront us in the twenty-first century will not be met by mere deference to power, reliance on a shaky status quo or operation in old silos. Rather, they demand a model of leadership that is norm-based, principled, inclusive, accountable, multidimensional, transformational, collaborative and self-applied.8

The UN has set out an ambitious System-Wide Gender Parity Strategy with targets and quotas, and Enabling Environment Guidelines. Over 300 leaders in the International Gender Champions network have made a Panel Parity Pledge alongside two other commitments of choice to advance gender equality.

So how can women lead in the gendered environment that still exists today? We at the GCSP recognise that prevailing beliefs about leadership that are often linked to distant authoritative roles or functions mean that many women and men do not see themselves as leaders. However, leaders exist at every level, in every role, while informal leaders can be as important as formal leaders. The co-director of the Geneva Leadership Alliance, Peter Cunningham, states:

Leading is no longer only a requirement for those at the top. It is at its essence about translating values into meaningful action. Anyone with integrity, creativity and the motivation to learn can effectively mobilise others and achieve collective and sustainable impact.

We have built on the experiences of our course participants, as well as knowledge sharing and research from the Center for Creative Leadership and beyond, notably Marian Ruderman and Patricia Ohlott’s Standing at the Crossroads: Next Steps for High-Achieving Women9 and Jennifer Martineau and Portia Mount’s Kick Some Glass: 10 Ways Women Succeed at Work on Their Own Terms,10 to develop seven steps that women need to take for success.


  1. Focus on your purpose

Not many of us see ourselves as leading, even if that is what we are actually doing. The leader identity is particularly problematic for women because so many leadership images have been masculinised.11 However, when examining leadership from a whole-system perspective that involves multiple people and processes, a different model emerges. The Center for Creative Leadership’s White Paper on ‘Making Leadership Happen’ moves away from a focus on individual competencies to seeing leadership as a relational process involving the pursuit of and direction towards shared goals, the alignment and coordination of roles and responsibilities, and commitment by each individual to collective success over individual priorities. A focus on our purpose gives us energy and frees us to be creative in our leadership style, bringing our passion and vision into everything we do. The “leader identity” will almost inevitably follow.

In 'Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers',12 the authors suggest that:

Effective leaders develop a sense of purpose by pursuing goals that align with their personal values and advance the collective good. This allows them to look beyond the status quo to what is possible and gives them a compelling reason to take action despite personal fears and insecurities. Such leaders are seen as authentic and trustworthy because they are willing to take risks in the service of shared goals. By connecting others to a larger purpose, they inspire commitment, boost resolve, and help colleagues find deeper meaning in their work.

  1. Behave authentically

In societies where there are so many gendered expectations of how we should behave, it can sometimes be difficult to align our behaviour with our purpose and values. As novelist Anaïs Nin wrote, ‘We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are’.13 However, authenticity is the key to building trust and reshaping harmful norms. Behaving authentically requires a strong self-awareness informed by developing our understanding of our values, preferences and vulnerabilities.14 Finding space for reflection enables us to evaluate what we have been given in life and the choices we have made, and which values are so important to us and our core identity that it would be painful if we were to compromise on them, or if they were to come into conflict with those of other people. It enables us to let go of out-dated mental models that may be holding us back and filtering our perceptions and interpretations of what is possible.

Our authentic selves can evolve over time as learning about ourselves and leadership evolves. It is not about rigidity; it is about moving away from stereotypical labels and mental models to look at the behaviours underneath. Can we be confident and humble? Yes. Can we be assertive and empathetic? Absolutely. Different situations and contexts demand different responses, and our ability to adapt and to learn from mistakes and from feedback given by others is essential for effective leadership. Behaving authentically and framing leading as learning also enable us to create spaces that foster psychological safety15 and higher performance in our teams.  


  1. Own your power

When the status and value of women are undermined, many women not only struggle to access leadership positions, but also lack confidence. However, women have been leading households, communities and nations for centuries, and are currently qualifying in higher numbers than men from many schools and universities. Women have expertise, and we have experiences and value to add, we are resilient and strong: we have “power within”. It is time to put the imposter syndrome to bed and see our capacity to lead as a process of learning and growing:16 “Confidence comes from being tested, from failure and success, and from trying out new approaches in a supportive environment.”17

In addition, women are increasingly well placed to lead and exert their influence in more collaborative environments. As hierarchical power structures are being eroded by a lack of trust and legitimacy, and by the rise of networked power, more spaces for leadership are emerging. In this environment, Professor George Kohlrieser suggests that leadership styles more commonly associated with women’s behaviour are more effective, because of the need to form relationships rather than lead by power and domination. Women have great capacity for “power with”. The question to ask oneself is, “Can I assert myself with respect and facilitate bonding?” 


  1. Connect across boundaries

Connecting and building relationships constitute an essential part of leadership for everyone. The ability to establish and maintain effective networks is in fact the main predictor of career success.18 What do effective networks look like? They are open, diverse and deep: open in that not everyone involved knows one another; diverse in that they cross vertical and horizontal boundaries within an organisation, and demographic, geographic and stakeholder boundaries outside it; and deep in that there is a high level of trust, reciprocity and bonding.

For women, relationships are particularly important, because we grow through our personal and professional relationships. However, traditional “boys’ clubs” can create barriers, hence connecting across boundaries to find role models, mentors and sponsors is even more important. Don’t be afraid to ask for someone’s help or time over, say, a cup of coffee. Building relationships is critical for you, your career, and your wider progress and development. Women supporting other women, men supporting women, and women supporting men are the key to collectively changing harmful norms. When we do it well, the results are impressive: think of women’s marches around the world or the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. 


  1. Integrate into one whole

We are all juggling multiple identities and roles in our professional and personal lives, with family, friends and colleagues. Managing competing aspects of our lives can be challenging, especially if we have caring responsibilities. However, research has found that commitment to private life roles is associated with high performance in the more public sphere of work, with different facets of our lives informing and enriching one another. For example, whether we are talking about relational skills or task management, learning can be transferred between the two. To be clear, this is not about perfection and performance: it is about being good enough and being able to prioritise.19

Integration is also about recognising the mind–body connection, which is important for our mental and physical health, as well as our leadership presence. Sleep, nutrition and exercise are critical to combating stress. In addition, 70 per cent of our communication is non-verbal, so we need to understand what signals our body language is giving off; how to be more conscious of our actions; and how to nurture strength and resilience through mindfulness, meditation, yoga or recreational activities. 

Over time priorities will change and we need to constantly reassess and reprioritise. When the burden of care is not shared and there are no parental leave or flexible working policies, women can come under pressure and feel as though they are not able to succeed. Hiring support at home can be expensive and is not available to all. The result is that many women decide to step out of the workplace for a while. Some organisations have progressive “return to work” policies and programmes; in their absence women need to maintain relationships and expertise or build them anew in order to find new paths.


  1. Have courage and agency

All of this requires you to take risks, and to be bold and confident. Set yourself goals that you want to aspire to. Women are pioneering and creative: many paths have not been laid down for us, so they have to be forged. Greater courage and agency are needed, because we are challenging norms and so will encounter conflict. However, women have done this throughout history, and will continue to achieve “firsts” in workplaces, homes and communities.

During a mentoring lunch in Ghana, Brigadier General Ce Edjeani-Afenu, who holds the highest position ever occupied by a woman in the armed forces, and Dcop Maame Yaa Tiwaa Addo, the Director-General of the Criminal Investigation Department and first female Commandant of the Ghana Police Command and Staff College, explained the essential guiding principle of their mindsets as “seeing challenges as experiences and opportunities”. They encouraged women not to hold onto resentment or regrets, but to anticipate obstacles, to understand the choices and trade-offs they will have to make, to let go of things outside of our control, and to adjust our goals if we need to.Fears are a reality check, not an obstacle” they said, and women need to have the courage to take risks, believe in themselves, push and stretch themselves, and push back against conservative, male-centred stereotypes. 


  1. Be accountable

Finally, be accountable to yourself first of all. Write down your goals and share them – with a friend, colleague, mentor or coach. Check in regularly on these goals: make time to reflect on what is working well and what needs to be adjusted and changed and celebrate your achievements and successes!


The GCSP offers an ‘Inspiring Women Leaders’ course each October during which the seven steps are explored and developed. In addition, we run skills-building workshops throughout the year and offer customised solutions globally, with recent experience in Ghana and Kosovo




2 Marta Ghittoni, Lea Lehouck and Callum Watson, Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations, Baseline Study, DCAF, July 2018.


4Fleur Heyworth, “Diversity and inclusion: Applying ancient wisdom to shift mindsets for more sustainable outcomes”, Op-ed, 2 May 2019,

5 Theresa Schroeder, “Under my thumb: Rivalry, sexism, and gender inequality”, International Studies Association Annual Conference, 2016; Theresa Schroeder, “When security dominates the agenda: The influence of ongoing security threats on female representation”, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 61(3), 2017: 564–89

Catalyst, The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t, 2007,


8 CEB/2017/1.

9 Marian N. Ruderman and Patricia J. Ohlott, Standing at the Crossroads: Next Steps for High-Achieving Women, Jossey-Bass and the Center for Creative Leadership, 2002./p>

10 Jennifer W. Martineau and Portia R. Mount, Kick Some Glass: 10 Ways Women Succeed at Work on Their Own Terms, Center for Creative Leadership, 2019.

11 Google “Cartoon image of professor” or “Ambassador”. Of the first 100 images, how many are women?

12 Herminia Ibarra, Robin J. Ely and Deborah M. Kolb, “Women rising: The unseen barriers, Harvard Business Review, September 2013.

13 Anaïs Nin, Seduction of the Minotaur, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, 1961/2014.

14 See work by Dr Brene Brown, including the “Leadership Manifesto”.

15 See Amy Edmundson,

16 See the work of Carol Dweck on the “Growth Mindset”.

17 Martineau and Mount, Kick Some Glass.

18Phil Wilburn, 2017,

19 Ruderman and Ohlott, Standing at the Crossroads.


Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in the written publications are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those shared by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy or its employees. The GCSP is not responsible for and may not always verify the accuracy of the information contained in the written publications submitted by a writer.

Fleur Heyworth leads the GCSP's executive education, dialogue and policy analysis on gender and inclusive security.  Working closely with the Geneva Leadership Alliance, she designs and facilitates courses on leadership for women, and for male and female leaders to create more inclusive working environments.  She also delivers modules on gender and inclusive security to the multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural participants on GCSP's core courses, incorporating the frameworks of the Women Peace and Security Agenda, and the Sustainable Development Goals.