In every corner of the globe, from the highest echelons of power to grassroots community organizations, a persistent imbalance continues to plague us: the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions. This isn't just about fairness; it's about the lost potential and stunted progress that occurs when we exclude the insights, strengths, and experiences of half the world's population. This is largely embedded in current cultural practices that are all too common across many cultures.

Yet, in recent years, the call for change has grown louder, amplified by the courage of young women defying expectations. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani champion of girls' education who survived a Taliban assassination attempt, embodies the relentless fight for justice. Greta Thunberg, the Swedish environmental activist, sparked a global youth movement with her demand for climate action. These remarkable young leaders remind us that true leadership knows no age or cultural boundary. Even seemingly unlikely voices, like globally celebrated pop star Taylor Swift, can use their influence to spark social change and inspire future generations of women to embrace their ambitions.

And it's not just young voices demanding change. Women across Latin America are breaking barriers and paving paths for change. Leaders like Rigoberta Menchú Tum, the Guatemalan Indigenous rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, have overcome immense hardship to champion justice and equality for marginalized communities. Her courage and tenacity serves as a testament that even in the face of the greatest challenges, the voices of women leaders cannot be silenced.In a similar vein, Michelle Bachelet, former President of Chile and the first woman to head the UN Human Rights Office, serves as a vital figure on the global stage.  Known for her unwavering commitment to promoting human rights and advocating for women's issues, Bachelet's career shows that strong female leadership can transcend borders and shape the world in meaningful ways.

Shatter the Intercultural Homogeneity of Leadership

Geert Hofstede's (2011) work on cultural dimensions reveals the profound differences in values, beliefs, and expectations that exist between societies. When our leadership circles reflect only a narrow slice of those cultures, we create blind spots – we overlook valuable solutions and fail to fully comprehend the interconnected problems our world faces.

Consider the concept of 'masculine' versus 'feminine' leadership styles. Many cultures place higher value on traits like assertiveness, decisiveness, and individualism – those traditionally associated with masculinity. Yet, leadership is far more complex. Successful leaders often embody a balance of diverse qualities, like collaboration, relationship-building, and empathy. Women leaders across the globe are shining a light on these valuable strengths that complement, rather than compete, with traditionally valued leadership traits.

By embracing diversity in leadership, we access a far broader pool of problem-posers, problem-solvers, innovators, and decision-makers. We create a leadership environment that mirrors the rich complexity of our societies, ensuring that policies, solutions, and visions align with the true needs and aspirations of all communities.

Of course, these actions are more difficult given the current cultural paradigms across many cultures and countries. It seems almost insurmountable to bring about such huge intercultural changes…but it is possible, and it is urgent to do so. What follows are common-sense suggestions that can and should be implemented urgently.

Ensure an Inclusive Future

Achieving true female representation in leadership won't happen overnight. It demands a coordinated and systematic effort on multiple fronts, dismantling long-held stereotypes and systemic barriers that hinder progress for women worldwide. First action steps include:

  1. Challenge the Stereotypes that Hold Women Back:Outdated, ingrained assumptions about gender roles form one of the most insidious barriers to women stepping into their power as leaders. These harmful biases influence not only how others perceive women, but also how women often perceive themselves. From a young age, girls are absolutely bombarded with messages – whether overt or subtle – that they are less suited for positions of authority. Educational programs and widespread awareness campaigns are already playing a crucial role in breaking down these stereotypes, shaping how future generations view leadership. For example, let's consider Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the influential Nigerian writer.  Her iconic TED Talk  “We Should All Be Feminists”, has been viewed tens of millions of times, powerfully articulating the danger of gender stereotypes and igniting important dialogues around the globe.  Such role models showcase that gender does not dictate leadership ability. Let's continue to illuminate the lives of exceptional women in history: pioneers like Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmental activist whose groundbreaking 'Green Belt Movement' earned her the Nobel Peace Prize, or Kiran Bedi, the first female Indian Police Service officer who transformed prison systems with her bold reforms. Such role models showcase that gender does not dictate leadership ability. There are hundreds of examples that can be showcased. Start with local women activists, and highlight their story, and the stories of those near them.
  2. Build Networks of Support and Collaboration:Mentorship programs that connect women from different cultural backgrounds create bridges of understanding. A mentor from a more senior position can help navigate unspoken cultural hurdles, champion her protege's potential, and guide her through the often-unfamiliar political landscapes of leadership. Cross-cultural exchange initiatives promote dialogue and foster global networks of women who recognize their shared experiences, uplift each other, and collaborate for change. We see examples of this when leaders like Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, champion initiatives to provide mentorship to aspiring female political candidates from less privileged backgrounds, empowering a new generation of changemakers. Cross-cultural exchange initiatives promote dialogue and foster global networks of women who recognize their shared experiences, uplift each other, and collaborate for change. The Internet can add intercultural mentorship on a global scale. Collaborative mentorships redouble the bonds that will be formed by such activity.
  3. Invest in Leadership Development:We must ensure an ever-expanding number of women have access to the skills, knowledge, and confidence to step into leadership roles. Targeted development programs should consider the nuanced contexts of different cultures, and sometimes work to transform outdated cultural notions in a global society. Imagine a woman aspiring to lead her family-owned business in a more conservative society. Training programs designed with those cultural sensibilities will equip her with both universal leadership principles and the ability to effectively communicate, inspire, and navigate decision-making within diverse cultural frameworks. Such programs already equip women with both universal leadership principles and the ability to effectively communicate, inspire, and navigate decision-making within diverse cultural frameworks. By investing more in this education, over the long term, we seed the fields of potential and provide tools for success. This is not a one-off thing. It must be a sustained investment with the understanding of a long-term return, and so instituted with patience and assurance. It also goes without saying that leadership coaching is an absolute essential to all of these types of investments.
  4. Establish Flexibility and the Reimagination of Work Structures:In many communities, traditional family structures or cultural expectations place a disproportionate burden of domestic and caregiving responsibilities on women. Leaders, businesses, and governments must reimagine work policies and embrace flexible models that acknowledge these realities. Let's take the story of a brilliant engineer whose career ambitions took a back seat when caregiving demands for her aging parents increased. With adaptable remote work options, family leave policies, and other support systems like accessible childcare, she, and countless others like her, get both support and freedom to pursue leadership goals even within their demanding personal responsibilities. These aren't simply concessions – they unlock the full potential of women by recognizing that leadership aspirations should not be forced into narrow moulds dictated by outdated systems. The pandemic taught us that we can somehow live and work remotely. Organizations should not backtrack and deny this much needed aspect of the life-work balance.
  5. Let Leaders Inspire:Let's celebratetrailblazers like Jacinda Ardern, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, who embodies compassionate yet effective leadership. Remember how her decisive handling of the Christchurch Mosque shootings while simultaneously balancing motherhood sent ripples of inspiration throughout the world. We should also look to leaders like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first elected female president. During her presidency in Liberia, she championed policies focused on rebuilding a nation ravaged by civil war, focusing on peace, economic recovery, and empowering women. These inspiring role models pave the way for the next generation of women to take their rightful place.

Remember, change, like life itself, is a journey, not a destination. The accelerating need for greater representation of women in leadership is a long-term endeavour, one that demands persistent and intentional action. We cannot allow stereotypes or traditional attitudes to confine potential or outdated systems to perpetuate inequality. The solutions are clear: shatter biases through education, nurture networks of support, invest in women's leadership skills through mentoring and coaching, reimagine inflexible workplaces, and amplify the voices of inspiring role models.

The potential rewards are enormous: we are already seeing them. When women take their rightful place at decision-making tables, we benefit from a richer pool of solutions, a broadened understanding of global challenges, and a world that finally reflects the full spectrum of human voices and experiences. It's not only the right thing to do, but also the essential thing to do for a thriving, just, and sustainable future. Our future as the human race is at stake if we don’t shift our thinking today.

The time for hesitation has passed; the time for surety is here. Let us all - individuals, communities, organizations, and governments -  make a bold commitment to dismantle barriers and embrace women's leadership. Each mentorship extended, every coaching hour completed, every flexible policy enacted, and with every stereotype challenged, we bring the world closer to true equity. Women like Tsai Ing-wen, the current President of Taiwan, prove that cultural biases can be defied and female-led nations can thrive under competent, effective leadership. With deliberate action and unyielding determination, we can create a future where leadership knows no gender and every person has the opportunity to shape this world, this one planet that we all share, regardless of our history and culture. Let’s do this!

Hofstede, G. (2011). Dimensionalizing Cultures: The Hofstede Model in Context. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1). https://doi.org/10.9707/2307-0919.1014

Intercultural Homogeneity Leadership