Why female leadership matters: international perspective and directions

Wendy Chua-Sullivan and Aysun Barin are the facilitators of a new short programme at BMI Executive Institute entitled “Resilience-Based Leadership for Female Leaders”. They’ve come together from different parts of the world to help women become stronger, wiser, more empathetic leaders. As strong professionals, caring mothers and active community members, Wendy and Aysun are well aware of the challenges women face while pursuing their professional and personal goals and dreams.

We spoke with them about women’s leadership, challenges that female leaders face around the globe, their personal insights regarding the importance of self-care, and the birth of this programme which helps female leaders grow.

Tell us a little about yourselves.

Aysun: After 31 years at a multinational technology corporation, I decided to establish my own company and became an entrepreneur, working with individuals, teams and organizations as a consultant, facilitator and executive coach. At age 69, I’m a lifelong learner. I enjoy exploring new things and working with different generations in this fast-changing world. That keeps me motivated and energetic. I am a mum with two kids. I go in for sailing in my free time and love travelling to new places. 

Wendy: I was born in Singapore into a Chinese business family. I grew up listening to business talk at the dining table in my grandparents’ house. At 19, I decided to go abroad to study psychology in Canada. Since 1994, I have been applying psychology to education and the development of youth and business leaders in Asia and around the world. I am now 51, with three children in their 20’s and a 19-year-old stepdaughter.

How did the topics of leadership in general and women’s leadership in particular become part of your professional life?

Aysun: As part of the management team at the corporation I worked for, I led many projects to put the right business and people strategies in place to grow and thrive in the VUCA world. A key objective was to encourage diversity and increase the number of women in decision-taking roles. I was the change advocate and the champion to ensure this objective was met. I learned a lot as we moved through our journey, from the mistakes we made and the successes we celebrated.

Since then, I’ve been supporting leadership teams and boards in a variety of industries. And I have experienced deeply how crucial it is to have effective leadership styles to transform an organization’s culture to cope in difficult times and be successful. I am also active in NGOs where the development of women is key, including helping younger generations give rise to the women leaders of the future. 

Wendy: I was brought up to believe that women can lead as well as men. But in coaching women leaders, I realized that not everyone has that belief from the time they are young. Thus, I am committed to increasing women’s confidence, presence and resilience to lead themselves, others and businesses.

How would you describe female leadership? Why does the world need female leaders right now?

Aysun: Today, people never wake up to the same world as yesterday. Change has never been so fast, due to technology, Covid, economic fluctuations, political chaos and environmental crises. To cope with all the setbacks and lead effectively, we can’t think and act like we did yesterday. And it all starts with self-awareness and self-leadership.

Empathic communication, humility, care and compassion. Listening and deep democracy. Creating an inclusive environment where people feel safe and valued. Those are the leadership styles that will be more and more important for success. And most of these traits are found in female leaders. Diverse experiences and viewpoints play a significant role in better decision-making, the kind that helps companies outgrow their competitors. When women become leaders, they bring new talents, new perceptions, new point of views to companies, resulting in more successful relationships and outcomes.

Wendy: Female leadership is more open to caring for the team’s well-being and to more gracious ways to enhance performance. Every woman can lead, we do lead in our homes and communities, and we should bring our leadership into the workplace. I believe we bring creativity, intuition, empathy and kindness into the workplace.

What are the most common challenges women leaders currently face? Are they the same all around the globe or do they differ?

Aysun: The most prominent challenges I notice are: difficulty setting boundaries and difficulty saying “no‘‘, the risk of burn-out, work-life balance, underrepresentation in leadership positions and a lack of female role models, difficulty making their voice heard, and low self-confidence. Most of these are related to mindsets and biases in the workplace and in society and to our personal biases.

We’ve run women leaderships programmes in more than 38 countries and my sense is that the challenges are the same all over.

Wendy: There is still unconscious bias against women. If a woman is presenting next to a man, the audience unconsciously thinks he is the boss or is somehow more credible than her. Also, woman leaders tend to take on more family responsibilities: housework, caring for children, caring for aging parents. In my work with women around the world, the challenges are similar. One difference could be that in some parts of the world, women have access to less expensive housekeeping and childcare help, and that might help them free up some time for themselves (hopefully).

What challenges do you personally face as an active woman and how do you deal with them?

Aysun: Nowadays the biggest challenge I’m faced with is work-life balance. Especially during and after Covid, my working hours have been very long, leaving me very little time for personal activities and time with friends and family. To deal with this, I am trying to set my priorities, make choices based on what aligns most with my purpose, and say ‘no’ to what is not urgent and important.  

Wendy: I find many demands on my attention and energy: my clients, board duties, the community I advocate mental well-being in, my family. Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night too stimulated to go back to sleep.

So I’m learning to delegate administrative tasks to others and to coach my team to handle engagements that do not require me. This frees up some time and energy to do the work that only I, their leader, can do: meeting strategic partners and clients and serving on boards.

I delegate household tasks too, since I am not good at them. I’ve learned to let go of my need to control what happens at home. I’ve also coached my children to be independent learners. So I don’t need to supervise their studies much. I trust them to make good decisions and to self-correct and learn if they make poor choices.

As for self-care, I’m getting better at this, so at least 3 nights a week I sleep well. This is still work in progress.

In your opinion, what could help women face their challenges more easily?

Aysun: I find networking, sisterhood and asking for help to be very powerful. Sharing your stories and learning from each other’s’ experience, embracing who you are and bringing your wholeness and real self into the space has a big impact in building resilience. One thing that helps is a shift in the mindset to see every setback and challenge as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Wendy: It is easier when we learn to live with our imperfections, ask others for help, and accept help with humility and grace.

What advice would you give to women currently dreaming of becoming better leaders?

Aysun: Start by taking care of yourself. If you take care of yourself, you have more strength and wisdom to take care of and lead others. Be kind to yourself.

Wendy: I wish we would give one another more credit, to stand up and nominate other women for leadership roles.

Why the programme is dedicated to women? What makes it worth attending?

Aysun: The value of gender diversity is widely acknowledged. Women bring different perspectives and approaches to business, resulting in a more inclusive workplace and often better performance for the organization.

Having female leaders in positions of influence to serve as role models is not only critical to the career advancement of women, it also generates broader impacts that benefit both men and women and attract a more diverse workforce.

We have women in our programme from many countries and have been receiving great feedback from them on how it is possible to make a difference in their work and personal life. It’s a unique programme as we create a psychologically safe environment where women can openly and truthfully speak about their setbacks and learn from each other. The objective is to embolden women leaders, connecting them with their inner strengths, improving their self-awareness, building self-confidence, and growing their resilience for the challenges ahead. The essence is preparing women to thrive during these disruptive times.

Wendy: Aysun’s story is so powerful and I agree with her. All I will add is that you are worth the time and investment of Resilience for Growth. You’ll be connected with other passionate and powerful women, sharing and learning together. You’ll realize you are not alone. You’ll learn to build yourself up, and to grow others too.

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