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Women in Leadership: What Makes an Effective Leader?

by Professor Beena Giridharan

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em”, so goes a popular quote attributed to Shakespeare (The Royal Shakespeare Company, 2010)

Leadership is viewed as an inherent quality; yet it is clearly possible to be a capable leader through consciously learning how to be one. Knowing your strengths and being aware of areas one needs to work on, understanding how your co-workers view you, and knowing what your group or organisation needs, are some of the qualities that sets one apart as a good leader.

Because the world has been without the full benefit of the talent, creativity and ideas of half its population for far too long.” - Michael Crow, President, Arizona State University

It is well acknowledged that diversity and inclusion offer strategic advantages at a leadership level. In general, people are cognisant of diversity and inclusion in terms of ethnicity and nationality, and the significant gains they bring.

Nonetheless, gender diversity impacts are less exemplified. Every individual who sets on a career path, surely, starts their journey with great aspirations and expectations about themselves, and what they hope to achieve.

Invariably, he or she is bound to have the desire to lead, to inspire, to contribute, to share success and make their mark on the world. Somewhere along their career trajectory, people, in particular women, start losing confidence in themselves.

So as employees and employers, we need to think about what we need to put in place to keep that vision brightly illuminated within young minds, and recognise the structures and systems that motivate individuals to give their best.

While we have many role models of women leaders, they are far and few between, when compared with male counterparts. Globally women have led corporations, governments, academic and financial institutions, demonstrating successes achieved and expertise they bring to the governing boards.

Yet, for the most part, the leadership journey is fraught with anxieties and self-doubts about themselves, for most women. They are held back largely by themselves as they are hesitant about taking on larger roles and responsibilities due to insecurities.

“Because real equality in the workplace and the home will make all of us better off. When we use the full talents of the population, our countries and companies are more productive." - Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook, Founder & Board Chair, Lean In

Socialisation of leadership is believed to start early when children are in schools and are impressionable. Literature is replete with the imbalance of support girls receive to pursue studies in physical sciences as compared to boys, even in the developed world. Schools are the first places where leadership can be instilled. Teachers must be resolute to encourage and support female students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects where they are largely unrepresented.

Findings from the 2015 UNESCO Bangkok, publication indicate that the low female participation in STEM is attributed to a number of societal, cultural, educational and labour influences (A Complex Formula: Girls and Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in Asia, 2015).

Receiving encouragement and praise from role models can have a tremendous effect on young women. Having more women in the boardroom have been seen to benefit companies financially. Fortune 500 companies with higher number of women in leadership roles have been reported to have performed better on average in return on sales, equity and investments (Zarya, 2016).

In summary, a diverse and inclusive workforce with brightest minds and talents will likely be most successful as they will pioneer innovative solutions and ideas to compete globally

This article was previously published in Issue 04 of the Leader’s Digest (15 March 2018).

Professor Beena Giridharan is the Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor of Curtin University Malaysia and Dean of its Faculty of Humanities. She has been a Fellow of the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA) since 2006, and serves as a mentor to aspiring HERDSA Fellows. In 2006, she won the Carrick National Australian Award for University Teaching and the Curtin Excellence and Innovation in Teaching Award. As a member of Australia’s Office of Learning and Teaching (OLT) funded ‘Learning without Borders’ project, Professor Beena has investigated leadership roles in Trans-National Education (TNE) and internationalisation of curriculum. Professor Giridharan’s research and academic interests cover vocabulary acquisition in ESL; educational administration and leadership; higher education practices; transnational education; work-integrated learning; and ethno-linguistic studies in indigenous communities. She can be contacted at 085-443 939 or by email to beena@curtin.edu.my.