Will women soon lead the way as futurists and change-makers?

Women have long been in positions of power, but the next generation of women leaders will have to master new skills.

The author

Nancy S Y Sim Lim

Nancy Sim, Independent Director, Writer, Entrepreneur and former HR head

The leaders of the past - Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale and Queen Victoria, to name but three - 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 prejudicediscrimination and struggle.

Yes, women, as a whole, 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.

Historically, there's been a shift for women away from politics and medicine in the last few centuries.

Consider the first Industrial Revolution and the suffragette movement, as aptly illustrated by the British historical period drama, Suffragette, starring Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep. 

This was a fight for equality. 

This was a fight for the right to vote.

A turning point in many ways, this movement demonstrates how women have been contributing every step of the way, to the development of human capital and society at large, through the negotiation for freedom and equal rights. 

And women continue to do much 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 megatrends, technological disruption as well as the growing gig economy. 

The question we must ask ourselves today is whether we still feel we need to negotiate our rights. Have we claimed our power and voice? Is there more to be done? 

Yes, there is, according to leading non-profit global organisation, Catalyst, whose mission is to accelerate progress for women through workplace inclusion.

Career women

Across the world, both the East and West, we've seen a focus on placing more women in leadership roles. While this continues to be a challenge, progress is being made.  

Take the 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 FTSE boards in the UK. Over in Malaysia, the 30% Club was launched in 2015 by the Prime Minister to help the country achieve its target of tripling the percentage of women on company boards to 30% by 2016. 

What does this mean though to the professional women of today? Would we go so far as to endorse the headline in internationally recognised executive coach, Lois R Frankel's book, Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office: Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage their Careers? This New York Times bestseller, a must-have for women in business, reveals the distinctive set of behaviours that can ultimately sabotage women. Certainly, Jessica Pearson, managing partner of Pearson Specter Litt of the USANetwork's Suits series fame 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 recent McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) 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 percent of the world's global GDP.

This is a staggering number.

In fact, "if every country matched the progress towards gender parity of its fastest-improving neighbour, global GDP could increase by up to US$12 trillion in 2025".

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 US 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, Margaret Atwood and Victoria Woodhull. In sports, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Serena Williams, Billie Jean King and Sonja Henie.

In the sciences, Marie Curie, Dian Fossey, Ada Lovelace and Huda Sha'arawi.

The list goes on and on.

These successful women have evolved from the traditional roles thrust upon them into roles that hold meaning for each and every one of them. They have fought their battles. They have carved their place, whether in the political arena, Wall Street or the sports field.

Developing competencies for the future

Continued evolution requires developing competencies and skillsets in new areas, areas previously unchartered and areas which are driven by megatrends. In today's business world where companies struggle to keep afloat, where the focus is often on short-term gain and quick growth, where we seek to defend our franchise, we need a whole new set of skills to navigate our future.

As Einstein fittingly pointed out, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."

Nate 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 ( Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity). This term speaks to the era of disruption we face, disruption that impacts us across every facet of our lives. We feel this impact in the way we work, live, pay and travel.

For women to understand how best to manage this new environment, we need a better grasp of the mental toolkit and skillset we need to have.

Women ultimately want to be valued for their unique yet compelling approach. And 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 a better quality of education, better access, better opportunities, more transparency.

She wants to support marginalised communities.

The woman of today seeks the skills - the leadership skills - that will inform her decisions, that will 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 mean?

New platforms that open up access, freedom of information, innovative ways of thinking.

New connections and conversations that help her move forward in the direction the modern woman seeks.

New partnerships and support for mutual growth.

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 and she encourages women to step up in terms of gamesmanship, to compete outwardly and not fear the imposter syndrome. She suggests that women should accept losing well and take a lighter attitude towards life in general.

In summary, what are some of the leadership skills women need to have?

First, be mindful of what you've achieved and how far you've come. Be mindful that you need not achieve everything. Second, 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. Third, 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.

Fourth, be adaptive. Be agile towards all the changes happening around you. Fifth, understand that power and authority can only be obtained if women support one another from cradle to boardroom.

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.

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