When you envision a thought-leader, what first comes to mind? For me personally, I get a mental image of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg giving a speech about the importance of her "Lean In" movement, which is unique in that it's a rare time when the first image that comes to mind when you talk about anyone in leadership is a woman. I could go into detail about how the unconscious mind absorbs the misogynistic tendencies of society, but I'll just say this- we still have a gendered leadership problem. We assume men are more natural, competent, and fair leaders than women.
You also don't have to take my word for it, since there's a countless number of studies that have found this gender disparity in leadership to be alive and well. In 2014 the Pew Research Center found that some 50% of women and 35% of men agree that many businesses aren't ready to hire women for top executive positions. A recent survey from The Huffington Post and MAKERS found that 67% of men and women said that gender bias in the office was somewhat or very common. According to The Center For American Progress, although women hold almost 52% of professional level jobs, make up 60% of those earning Bachelor and Master's degrees, and are 47% of the total US labor force, women only hold 14.6% of executive office positions and are only 8% of top earners. Women of color fare even worse, as they only make up 3.2% of Fortune 500 company board seats, compared to 16.9% for white women, and occupy a total of just 11.9% of managerial and professional job positions.
Even though prospects are dismal for women in traditional leadership roles, there's an interesting new leadership industry where women are dominating- thought leadership. Thanks to the internet and the marketing tools it provides to entrepreneurs and bloggers, we're seeing the rise of the guru. While the rest of us have been busy tweeting about the latest episode of Pretty Little Liars and Starbuck's new fall drink, this new brand of ladies have taken the internet by storm.
Even if you don't know it, you've definitely encountered the work of thought-leaders; think of those fascinating yet relatable people giving TED talks that go viral, fashion bloggers who are getting front row tickets to New York Fashion Week and designing their own collections, body positive activists who are creating social media storms, or even mommy bloggers who are trying to make the world a better place for their kids. These are people like Michelle Phan, Alexis Jones, Lauryn Evarts, Cassie Ho, Tess Holliday Marie Forleo, Ash Ambirge and Danielle LaPorte. They're everyday women with extraordinary power, thanks to their intellect, entrepreneurial insight, social media savvy, and fearless attitudes.
These female business owners have proven that online entrepreneurship is not just a trend -- it's a way of life. These freelancers, coaches and consultants don't play by traditional industry rules: when it comes to online entrepreneurship, earning credibility and becoming and expert in your field no longer has to do with credentials -- it's about the people whose lives you've changed. The lesson? Helping others never goes out of style.
Why is it that women are dominating the thought leadership space so much? Perhaps it's because they're the ones building online platforms and businesses from scratch and sharing their expertise. Although there have yet to be any studies looking at this impact specifically, this question was asked on Vendeve, an online referral network for female entrepreneurs. Interestingly, only one man was mentioned by anyone in the thread, and those that were mentioned tended to be women who had rags-to-riches stories of online entrepreneurship, building their business from the ground up.
I've also found that platforms like Vendeve are also a part of the answer of "why?" as women are often the ones behind giving women access to networks filled with thought leaders. On the site, you're actually rewarded for sharing your expertise, as you can build "Street CredTM" points by asking and answering questions in their collaborative forum, which then boosts your profile in their expert directory, making you and your business more visible to potential clients.
I spoke to founder and CEO Katelyn Bourgoin about this functionality, as she herself has built many other successful companies. "I like to say that entrepreneurship is like riding a unicorn through a minefield--magical, exhilarating and terrifying. It's way too tough to do alone. Cliches and platitudes aside, business is about building relationships. And women understand that relationships are built on trust. But in today's insanely noisy digital world, trust is hard-earned. And that's what makes Vendeve so special," she said.
Vendeve is also certainly not the only platform that women are building thought leadership on, as there are many other female focused platforms that have sprung up in recent years. Two of my other personal favorites are She Owns It, an editorial site that celebrates and connects female entrepreneurs, and SheKnows, which amplifies women's voices in media. In my experience, the best of these networks empower women to use their unique skills and ideas to help others, while also leveraging themselves.
Since all of these thought-leadership platforms have been created by women, perhaps the formula for what makes a good thought leader reflects this. Guise Marketing PR puts it well when they state that thought leadership is the combination of passion, expertise, and experience. They say that women are "long overdue" for environments that cultivate their abilities, which I believe would clearly drive them to start their own platforms. Especially with the power of the internet, building a successful company has become much more accessible to all, especially those who haven't typically had access to power, like women and other minority groups.
Perhaps women are taking over the thought leadership game because they see themselves exactly as that -- leaders. Since the traditional job market is certainly not accommodating to women with ambition, as the earlier statistics showed, perhaps women are walking away from the old-fashioned board rooms and creating their own networks instead. Or maybe, these negative workplace experiences have given us more to say and added fuel to our fires. Either way, there's no question that women are owning thought-leadership and owning it well.