Sumru Erkut, Ph.D.

WELLESLEY, Mass. (WOMENSENEWS)–A new study on women’s leadership has turned up an unexpected finding, a radical departure from the shopworn advice to “become more like men.” Instead, highly successful women leaders speak of mothering as both a training ground for leadership and a metaphor for leadership behavior.

Managing time effectively, multi-tasking, team building, resourcefulness and acquiring whatever skills are necessary to get the job done–that’s what good mothers and good leaders do.

“If you can manage a group of small children, you can manage a group of bureaucrats. It’s almost the same process,” said one of 60 successful women leaders surveyed by the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women in its report, “Inside Women’s Power: Learning From Leaders.”

Sumru Erkut, Ph.D., the center’s associate director, is the author of the survey that asked questions about many aspects of working women’s lives and sought details about their different strategies to get to the top.

The study was prompted by the now-common question: Why so few women leaders?

Many of the answers were unsurprising. However, about 40 percent of the women surveyed mentioned motherhood and mothering as a training ground for leadership or a metaphor for leading, another way of describing what leadership is really like.

“It’s not a humongous finding quantitatively,” Erkut said in an interview. “But it is significant in representing how far many women have come in the world of leadership, in that they can refer to the lived experiences of women as a way of talking about what they do. In the same way men speak of leadership with military and sports metaphors.”

It’s not the case that women lacked a metaphor and now they found one in mothering, Erkut said. Rather, she explained, she believes that women are now talking about leadership in the context of their own lives.

Sign of Comfort With Womanhood–Don’t Check It at the Door

“It’s a sign of their comfort with motherhood,” Erkut said, noting, “In the past, women checked their womanhood at the door.”

She recalled the days when women were told to wear a little blue suit and a white silk blouse and to carry their briefcase through the front door.

“So, this is a very hopeful sign for young women. They aspire to leadership but they want to be who they are. They want to be authentically themselves.”

One woman told researchers: “It’s partly team building. And a family is partly team building, too. Getting kids to work together and to feel the family feeling and not to be hitting each other and so forth.”

Neither this speaker nor the other subjects were identified for quotation but they were listed in an appendix.

Funded by California art collector Shamaya Gilo’s private foundation, Winds of Change, the study released in June is based on wide-ranging interviews with women acknowledged as leaders by their peers and ranging in age from their 30s to their 70s. They were divided into three groups, reflecting their relationship to the modern women’s movement: founders (at least 20 years as a leader), developers (at least 10 years as a leader) and the younger successors.

The women who responded include Val Ackerman, president of the Women’s National Basketball Association; Maya Angelou, author and poet; Mary Chung, chief executive officer of the National Asian Women’s Health Organization; Joan Cooney, founder of the Children’s Television Workshop; Ellen Malcolm, founder and president of EMILY’s List; Alice Rivlin, economist; Lesley Stahl and Helen Thomas, journalists; and Jody Williams, Nobel Laureate founder of the campaign to ban landmines.

Women Favor Democratic, People-Oriented Leadership Style

Some findings confirmed other observations, such as the institutional rather than individual roadblocks to women’s success, the importance of persistence and optimism in pursuing one’s mission and the importance of a democratic and people-oriented style of leadership.

“While it is not possible to talk about a singular female style of leadership, the majority of these leaders combined a strong focus on results with equal attention to the growth and development of the people surrounding them,” the report said. “The description of nearly every woman’s leadership practice included elements of the democratic, people-oriented style.”

An unexpected finding, however, was the identification of leadership skills with mothering.

“Some of the leaders identified a framework for understanding the roots and practices of leadership as emerging from mothering as both a training ground for leadership and a metaphor for describing leadership behavior,” it said. Familial relations, especially being a responsible older sister, also trains in leadership skills, the report said.

This is not about glorifying motherhood, the study makes clear, “although crediting good mothering with leadership qualities has been overdue.”

Crediting Good Mothering With Leadership Qualities Is Overdue

“Rather, it is about drawing attention to the ‘ownership’ some women bring to their leader roles,” the report said. “Thus, we are not advancing a new way to conceptualize leadership as primarily maternal behavior. More than anything else, this finding suggests that in the traditionally masculine realm of leadership there are the beginnings of female strongholds where women feel comfortable.”

One woman was quoted describing how being a capable mother prepared her for leadership.

“When you deal with small children, you just … develop a certain level of patience that … makes … dealing with adults sometimes easier. Having kids really forces you, if you’re not already pretty good at time management, it just forces it.”

Another woman added: “I think women are inherently more multitasking than men … any woman that goes through motherhood has to be.”

Among leaders who recognized mothering, more women of color were likely to refer to mothering as a metaphor for leadership and more Caucasian women recognized it as a training ground, the report said.

Leaders of Color Show Mothers’ Power to Bring Others Along

Author Patricia Collins, who has examined African American women and motherhood, has said, “Women’s innovative and practical approaches to mothering under oppressive conditions often bring power and recognition.” The report quotes Collins as saying that mothers and “othermothers,” a term honoring women who help birthmothers by sharing responsibilities, have personified power in their struggles to help the less fortunate.

Powerful mothers do not dominate or control but bring people along, the report says. Thus, for leaders who are women of color, the report says, mothering metaphors for leadership allude to mothers’ transformative power to bring people along.

Caucasian women leaders, the report said, tend to refer to motherhood as a training ground for future efforts.

Another interesting finding was the approach of women leaders to risk. The greatest thrill from risk-taking was enjoyed by the middle group of women leaders, the developers. Of those, 71 percent said they embraced the possibilities of great rewards or possible failures.

“Some, especially middle-aged women, actively seek the thrill of risk,” according to Dr. Erkut. Both the older and the younger leaders were more reluctant to take risks.

Other Findings on Women’s Leadership and Strategies

Key findings:

  • Obstacles to women’s leadership have diminished but definitely have not disappeared. Most obstacles are embedded in the general organization of work that was designed neither with women nor with the support of a family structure in mind, rather than in any so-called deficiencies women may have as leaders.
  • Leaders of color were more likely to report roadblocks to their success than Caucasian leaders.
  • While it is not possible to talk about a singular, female style of leadership, the majority of these leaders combined a strong focus on results with equal attention to the growth and development of the people surrounding them.
  • The ascendancy of the democratic, people-oriented leadership practice forms the contemporary context of leadership today.
  • Throughout their careers, these women were tenacious and optimistic. They paid little attention to obstacles in their work life. Whether they stuck to their original plan in the face of obstacles or revised their strategy, optimism and a sense of mission propelled their actions.
  • The strategy these leaders employed to gain visibility and hence credibility for their work can be summarized as “know and value yourself and let others know”–modesty does not create opportunity.
  • Many leaders recognized a strong foundation of early support from family, friends, teachers, mentors and associates. But this was not universal, and other participants without such support achieved extraordinary success.

Mary Henry Meier is a writer in Madison, N.H.

For more information:

The report, “Inside Women’s Power,” is available from the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women: