For IWD 2023 we showcase influential women who offer hope for gender equality
In her book 'My Life in Full', former PepsiCo CEO and Chair Indra Nooyi (above) makes a plea to men: Come to the table on gender equality.
And, no wonder. When it comes to leadership, the odds have always been stacked against women.
In the words of Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders Laura Liswood: “There's no such thing as a glass ceiling for women. It's just a thick layer of men.”
As recently as 1995, there were no female CEOs on the Fortune 500 list. In 2023, women now make up 8.8% of CEOs on the list.
While noteworthy progressions have been made, women are still significantly underrepresented in key decision making roles, accounting for only 23% of executives worldwide.
So, it seems fitting for the International Womens Day 2023 theme ‘Cracking the Code: Innovation for a gender equal future’ to reflect on the importance of innovation towards gender equality.
The theme stresses that without equal access to education and inclusive technologies, women will continue to be underrepresented in leadership roles.
In the lead up to IWD 2023, we’ll reflect on 8 influential women, both past and present, and how their challenges and achievements are paving the way for women and girls today.
8 Inspirational Women Changing The Face Of Leadership
There are inspiring women all around us – from political leaders and CEOs to our own mothers, sisters and daughters.
These women continue to pave the way for a gender equal future. They lead by example, break down barriers and inspire others to follow their lead.
1. Emmeline Pankhurst
“Once they are aroused, once they are determined, nothing on earth and nothing in heaven will make women give way, it is impossible.”
Let's go back to the beginning: it all started with Emmeline Pankhurst.
Emmeline Pankhurst’s tireless fight for gender equality helped pave the way for all future female leaders.
She was the leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and an instrumental figure in the British women’s suffrage movement in the late 19th – early 20th century.
While Emmeline Pankhurst is often critised for her militant tactics, we can't ignore her contributions towards gaining women the right to vote.
Her efforts towards integrating women into the workforce (particularly in male dominated roles) during World War I made it impossible for the British government to ignore the importance of women in society.
By 1928, just several months after Emmeline’s death, the Representation of the People Act recognised the equal right for men and women to vote.
Transformational leaders like Emmeline Pankhurst emphasise the importance of a collective mission. Her passion to tirelessly encourage women of all backgrounds to work together for a better chance of gaining the right to vote set the foundations for all female leaders to come.
2. Indra Nooyi
“An important attribute of success is to be yourself. Never hide what makes you, you.”
Indra Nooyi is no stranger to firsts.
Her role as former Chairwoman and CEO of PepsiCo (2006-2019) saw her become the first woman of colour and the first immigrant to head a Fortune 50 company.
She initiated mergers and strategic shifts, steering PepsiCo towards being one of the most successful food and beverage companies in the world. She saw market demand was shifting, and wasn’t afraid to pivot the business to follow suit.
Under Nooyi’s leadership, PepsiCo began offering more low-calorie options and reducing their carbon footprint through smarter packaging and renewable energy. The results speak for themselves, with PepsiCo’s revenue skyrocketing from $35 billion in 2006 to $63.5 billion by 2017.
Nooyi's transformational leadership style during her time at PepsiCo cements her as one of the most highly regarded CEOs in the world.
She had a clear vision, got employees excited about her ideas and wasn’t afraid to put in the hard work to reach her goals.
Find out more about Indra Nooyi’s inspirational leadership journey in her book: ‘My Life In Full: Work, Family and our Future’. Chock-full of advice for women, Indra also makes a plea to men to champion gender equality; for a start it creates a bigger talent pool to draw the very best people from. Without equality, the pool is cut by 50%.
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3. Angela Merkel
“You could certainly say that I’ve never underestimated myself, there’s nothing wrong with being ambitious”
As a woman, world leader and climate change advocate, Angela Merkel is no doubt an inspirational leader.
She served as the first female Chancellor of Germany for an impressive 16 years (2005-2021), during which she was named Forbes’ ‘World’s Most Powerful Woman’ for 10 consecutive years.
Her four terms in office are notably defined by the crises’ she overcame. This includes the Eurozone crisis (2010-2013), Refugee crisis (2015-2017) and COVID19 pandemic.
While many political leaders were ousted during these trying times, Angela Merkel flourished.
Merkel’s introduction of economic stimulus packages saw Germany thrive during the recession, and her closure of all 17 nuclear reactors positioned Germany as a world leader in energy reform.
Angela Merkel is often seen as a servant leader due to her strength and unwavering loyalty in times of crisis.
While she was not always the most popular German politician, Merkel always maintained a high level of public trust. She remained focused on the common good of Germany and always brought a stable, mature presence in the face of change, stress and troubling times.
4. Sheryl Sandberg
“Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence”
Sheryl Sandberg is one of the world’s most influential business executives.
She was instrumental in turning Google into a more profitable entity during her time as VP of global online sales and operations, before joining Facebook (now Meta) as Chief Operating Officer (COO). She was Meta's first female to serve on the board.
Under Sandberg’s guidance, Facebook initiated a new advertising strategy, eventually becoming profitable by 2010. Throughout her 14-year stint at Meta, Sandberg grew revenue from $272 million in 2008 to $116 billion in 2022.
Sheryl Sandberg also established the Lean In Foundation in 2013 with the goal of providing training, resources and support for women to achieve their professional goals.
Most people describe Sheryl Sandberg as a transformational leader. She sets high expectations, encourages employees to reach their goals and praises them when they do.
She gently nudges her team to step out of their comfort zone and lean in to their untapped capabilities.
She’s the type of leader to transform the people she works with for the better.
5. Melanie Perkins
“Rejection hurts a lot, but failure was never an option...when I set my mind to something I don’t give up very easily at all.”
Melanie Perkins is Co-Founder and CEO of Australia’s greatest startup unicorn Canva.
Perkins, along with her now husband Cliff Obrecht, and Cameron Adams, launched Canva in 2013. The goal was simple; empower everyone to easily create captivating designs without the need for a graphic design degree.
Today, Canva has over 60 million monthly users and is valued at US$17.3 million, with over 85% of Fortune 500 companies utilising the platform.
But the journey to success wasn’t easy for Perkins. It took her 3 years and over 100 rejections to finally pitch her idea to a willing investor.
Now the third wealthiest woman in Australia, Melanie Perkins’ tremendous success is the result of her perseverance and determination. There was nothing she wouldn’t do to see her company succeed, which is why she’s often seen as a transformational servant leader.
She’s also an advocate for a gender diverse workplace, with Canva’s workforce consisting of 41% women, much higher than the tech industry average of 28%.
6. Michelle Obama
“No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half its citizens.”
Michelle Obama is, without a doubt, one of the most passionate and accomplished First Ladies in history. Not only is she America’s 44th First Lady and wife to former US president Barack Obama, but a mother of two, lawyer, writer, community activist and social rights advocate.
Throughout her time in the White House, Michelle made it her mission to address important social issues like poverty, racism, education, nutrition and women’s rights.
She founded both the Reach Higher and Let Girls Learn initiatives, helping adolescent children, particularly girls, attain a quality education so they can reach their full potential.
Her story of self-sacrifice, hard work and dedication to achieve your goals continues to inspire millions of women across the globe.
Michelle Obama possess many qualities of a transformational leader. Her strong personality, sense of empathy and drive for social change inspires her followers to follow her vision. She shows us how staying true to your values leads to immense change in the world.
7. Ruth Bader Ginsburg
“Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a US Supreme Court Judge from 1993 right up until her death in 2020. She was not only the second female justice of the Supreme Court, but the first Jewish female Justice.
During her time as Justice, she used her power and influence to transform society and fight for the rights of others. But her journey to the top spot wasn’t without its challenges.
She continually faced discrimination as a woman, a Jewish person and as a mother, yet she never let these stereotypes stop her from making her mark as a lawyer.
In 1972, she co-founded the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) with the goal of tackling one gender inequality law at a time.
Her work paved the way for the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the same social security rights for both men and women.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a trailblazing transformational leader. She worked tirelessly for a society where men and women are equal under the law rather than confined to a stereotype. Her vision for gender equality and a common social good continues to inspire millions to this day.
8. Sara Blakely
“Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know. That can be your greatest strength and ensure that you do things differently from everyone else.”
Sara Blakely is one of the most well-known female entrepreneurs of her generation. She’s the founder and sole owner of multi-million dollar shapewear line SPANX.
Launching in 2000, SPANX generated over $4 million in its first year. By 2012, Sara Blakely became Forbes’ youngest female self-made billionaire and by 2021, her company was valued at $1.2 billion.
Blakely often notes that one of her biggest lessons when building her shapewear empire was to embrace failure. In fact, she schedules regular ‘Oops’ meetings with her employees to discuss their failures and what they learn from them.
Speaking to Harvard Business School, she notes “If you can create a culture where [your employees] are not terrified to fail or make a mistake, then they’re going to be highly productive and more innovative”.
Sara Blakley’s style of leadership often falls under Laissez-Faire. She trusts her employees to get the job done with minimal interference.
She encourages failure and innovation, allowing employees to use their creativity, experience and resources to reach their full potential.
Women leaders outrank men in some leadership skills
What Makes Women Such Great Leaders?
These 8 inspiring women demonstrate that a great leader is someone who is consistent, driven, self-aware and empowers others to rise up with them.
While great leaders are not gender specific, studies show that women often outrank men in most leadership skills (and especially soft skills) such as relationship building, empathy and initiative.
In fact, a 2020 Harvard Business Review study highlights that women possess better soft skills to lead in times of crisis. A point particularly highlighted by leaders like Angela Merkel during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Women have the ability to dream big, challenge stereotypes, inspire others and not take no for an answer. They tend to favour communication and collaboration, often displaying a blend of transformational, participative and democratic leadership styles.
Women also tend to display higher levels of empathy – another impactful asset of many female leaders.
An empathic leader listens and connects with their employees on a deeper level. They are more in touch with what motivates people and more likely to encourage and reward hard work.
Learn From Growth Faculty's Most Inspiring Leaders
The IWD 2023 theme highlights the importance of striving for a gender-equal future, these 8 inspirational women show that it's not only possible, it's 100% achievable.
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Indra Nooyi photo courtesy of Indra Nooyi
Women in meeting photo by Adam Winger on Unsplash