Women and Leadership: Navigating Pathways to Success

Today, the University of Toronto’s Shezadi “Shelly” Khushal reflects on what she drew personally from Women and Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons, which she reviewed for the journal Leadership. The book, by former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the World Trade Organization’s Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who Khusal calls “inspiring women leaders” in their own right, was published by MIT Press earlier this year.

Women are powerful. We are able to multi-task, in short periods of time, and have the flexibility and resiliency to boot. Although I have never considered myself a ‘feminist,’ I do believe in the power and strength of women. I also believe in the nation of sisterhood, where woman support and lift each other up, and share in each other’s successes. As a woman who is raising a daughter, I think about the impact I have on her – through my actions, attitudes and behaviors. I think about what the world will look like in the next five to 10 years. I think about gender equality, how far we have come and how far we have to go, and I think about what steps I can take today to change the path for my daughter tomorrow. For this reason, I have engaged in the scholarship of women and leadership. 

The news of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, the first female and racialized American to take the vice presidential oath of office, changed the landscape of politics and history. Through work ethic, determination, belief in oneself, and viewing barriers as hiccups, and not blockages, she exemplifies that change is possible. Harris, now one of the most prominent political leaders of our time, states “while I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last, because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”

COVID-19 is another event that has influenced my thinking around women in leadership. Navigating through crisis requires courage, and courage requires leadership. Here, the work of Michael Fullan comes to mind. Fullan makes clear that women are better leaders. Leaders set the tone for change to take place. Leaders use traits like compassion, empathy, humility and courage to lead their followers through unstable times. Women possess these qualities. But research indicates, no one single leader can be an effective champion for change, and for change management to be successful, it requires consistent messaging and action from leadership at all levels. Thus, advancing women in leadership is the responsibility of both women and men. 

Julia Gillard, left, and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, authors of Women and Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons

Women continue to be underutilized and underrepresented in senior-decision making roles. There are two reasons for this. First, the obstacles that women face are largely societal and cultural. They act against women from the time they enter kindergarten, which leads to being significantly underrepresented in high-earning STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). At the university level, they represent 32 percent of graduates in mathematics, computer and information sciences, and just 20 percent of graduates in architecture, engineering and related technologies (Conference Board of Canada 2018). Second, deeply rooted sexism and biases are at play, which permeates in attitudes, practices and systems.

In thinking about the advice I would give to new scholars and incoming researchers in this particular field of study, I will draw from the work of two inspiring women leaders, Julia Gillard and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: there is no right way to be a woman leader, we must be true to ourselves; we must reflect, question and work toward determining how to deal with gender bias; we must debunk false gender stereotypes and acknowledge that structural barriers are real; we must be a supporter of systems and changes that aid gender equality, and finally, we must go for it! Knowing what stands before us, we can no longer say, we are oblivious and thus, will no longer be blindsided.

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Shezadi Khushal

Shezadi Khushal is a second-year PhD student in the Educational, Leadership and Policy Program, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. Through her commitment to the principles of equity, inclusivity and justice, and in bridging the gap between education and human rights, Khushal is working towards transforming educational policies, which have historically excluded specific members of society.

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