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What the Shutdown Taught Us About Women's Leadership

Our collective narrative about leadership, both its traits and aesthetics, are profoundly gendered. As such, when we see a strong, smart woman leading, it is tempting and familiar to ascribe her success to gender alone.
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As we breathe a collective sigh of relief and begin to assess the damage and frustration thrust upon us by the recently ended 16-day shutdown of the U.S. Government, we now have another concrete example of the power of and critical need for women's leadership.

Time magazine wonderfully summed up the work that many of us around the country, men and women, felt needed to happen,

At one of the darkest moments of the government shutdown, with markets dipping and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue hurling icy recriminations, Maine Republican Susan Collins went to the Senate floor to do two things that none of her colleagues had yet attempted. She refrained from partisan blame and proposed a plan to end the crisis. "I ask my Democratic and Republican colleagues to come together," Collins said on Oct. 8. "We can do it. We can legislate responsibly and in good faith.

For decades, women's leadership styles have been attributed to a woman's "natural" ability to be diplomatic, nurturing, collaborative and compassionate. This assessment, while a great observation about what smart and effective leadership looks like, has less to do with gender and more to do with great leadership. Our collective narrative about leadership, both its traits and aesthetics, are profoundly gendered. As such, when we see a strong, smart woman leading, it is tempting and familiar to ascribe her success to gender alone.

It is true that we socialize women and girls differently. Through unconscious biases acted out in our family dynamics and reinforced by aggressive media images, we teach women from a very young age to be nice, likeable, kind and patient, a fact well-explored in Sheryl Sandberg's TEDx talk on women's leadership. We use positive and negative reinforcement to encourage women to be nurturing, attentive listeners and compassionate humanitarians and then, when women exhibit these characteristics in the board room and not in the home, we describe them as too soft and incapable of leadership. Concurrently, new studies such as John Gerzema's The Athena Doctrine, espouse these traits as critical aspects of adept and accomplished leaders.

Here in the U.S. and around the globe, we are still facing significant challenges. The continuing impact of the 2009 economic crash and subsequent global recession combined with the persistent infrastructure and financial challenges facing local and federal politicians and the decreasing potential for economic mobility in the U.S. all point to the pressing and urgent need for innovation in the corporate and non-profit sector. We can all agree that we need new ideas and creative solutions, and to implement this, we need more great leaders. The good news is, women are not only well-prepared to heed this call, they are already in action.

Whether in politics, business, social enterprise or non-profits, women are leading, innovating, inspiring and proving their ability to move through our greatest challenges with swift, solution-focused efforts, dynamic messages and strategies informed by thoughtful and intentional analysis.

For example, Swanee Hunt, the Chair of Political Parity, a program of the Hunt Alternatives Fund, recently published an article in the Global Post, illustrating the effectiveness of women's leadership. She astutely points out that while women currently make up 20% of the Senate, they were 66% of the bipartisan collaboration efforts that ended the shutdown.

Stepping just beyond the boundaries of politics, we can look to Reshma Saujani, a recent candidate for NYC Public Advocate who, in light of her defeat, continues to fight and advocate for women's leadership. As the Founder of Girls who Code, a national nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in the technology and engineering sector and author of a new book, Women Who Don't Wait in Line, she is inspiring women and girls to harness their full potential and claim their lives with bold fearlessness.

This new call for young women to exemplify courageous and authentic leadership is modeled well by Malala Yousafzai, who at 16, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her work as a Pakistani education activist in the aftermath of the Taliban's attempt to assassinate her on her way to school because of her writing in 2009 advocating for girls' education in Pakistan.

It is not only young women internationally, but young women here in the U.S. who are emerging as innovative leaders in every sector, as is evident from a series of profiles in the November issue of Marie Claire magazine highlighting the stories of "The New Guard." Young women like Natalia Oberti Noguera, Founder & CEO of the Pipeline Fellowship, is working to change the face of angel investing and create capital for women social entrepreneurs. Featured in prominent publications such as Forbes and the New York Times, Natalia is on the growing edge of social enterprise. She, along with young women like Leila Janah, the founder of Samma Source, a social business that connects the women and youth living in poverty to dignified work via the Internet, are leading voices in the call for excellence and innovation as it relates to social impact work.

As we look behind us at an abysmal breakdown in our democratic process, the future looks to be our build a pathway out of the ridiculous, with women continuing to lead the way.

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