Vibrant Economy Blog

Shaping the future for female leaders

Cheryl Giovannoni argues we can change the course of history for the better if girls have access to the right skills at the right time 

The evidence is piling-up that a more diverse leadership means better leadership, better business and is better for the bottom line.

But this doesn’t mean it is going to be plain sailing for women looking to get to the top. With just 25% of senior leadership roles held by women globally, there is a long way to go1.

I believe that fundamental change will only come when we start preparing our future female leaders long before they reach the boardroom – that means preparing them while they are in the classroom.

Broadening leadership

Just a snapshot of recent research confirms the evidence.

That increasing the number of women on a team also increases its collective intelligence2.

That boards with more women make better decisions – and they make fewer disastrous ones.

That, according to The Harvard Business Review, women directors change the way boards work3.

Research reveals that many women bring to the boardroom – and to decision making - different perspectives and experiences to their male counterparts. Female directors ask more questions and are less willing to make decisions they don’t fully understand. They tend to have a different style of engagement, seeking others’ opinions to ensure that everyone in the boardroom takes part in the discussion before final decisions are made.

Further analysis4 shows women tend to exhibit many of the traits associated with effective leadership - effective communication, a tendency to empower all team members, and creative problem solving. They are also more likely to adopt effective leadership styles than men.

In other words, the things women leaders tend to do can be more effective.

But it’s safe to say that we do need to broaden our views of leadership, to embrace a whole host of skills and qualities that can be undervalued by the prevailing culture. Skills like communication, collaboration, effective delegation, creativity, and empathy. Let’s work to make leadership a gender-neutral concept, which produces the best results.

Values in the time of the millennial

Increased diversity doesn’t just positively impact decision-making, it makes wider business sense in an age when the priorities of the workforce are changing.

A recent research study found that over two thirds of people think businesses, governments and not-for-profits need to deliver more social and environmental change. Nearly three-quarters want to see more transparency, and 81% want more accountability5.

With the rise of millennials in the workforce, commitments to more than just the bottom line will become increasingly important. The same study found that half of millennials would choose purposeful work over a high salary and two thirds want to work for a company that makes a difference to the world5.

Classroom to boardroom

While the evidence for diverse leadership is there, the reality is that it’s still tough – and tougher than it should be to break through to the upper echelons in every sector.

This is where educators play an instrumental role in helping a new generation of girls and boys appreciate their talents and gain the confidence to make their voices heard. We know students in school will face difficult challenges in the world of work, so it’s important for them to develop mental resilience. Education needs to help both girls and boys to cope with a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – and, as far as I can tell, it’s becoming more so. It’s also wonderfully exciting and unpredictable. I don’t believe in wrapping girls in cotton wool; on the contrary, I know that many girls are far stronger, resilient, opinionated and feisty than they are given credit for.

Many women working their way up major global companies still suffer setbacks and challenges because of their sex. Equipping young women with relevant leadership skills – teamwork, communication, negotiation, problem solving and financial management, among them – will allow them to overcome the obstacles placed in their way.

At the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) we run initiatives that give girls exposure to the realities of the working world. For example, our CareerStart programme equips girls with practical know how, like presentation skills, interview skills and managing online profiles. In our ‘Relationship Building and Networking’ session, students take part in practical exercises to create a positive first impression and learn how to ‘work a room’ with confidence. GDST alumnae also have access to the 70,000 plus members of the GDST Alumnae Network - past pupils doing all sorts of jobs and from all walks of life, on hand to offer support including mentoring, work experience and careers advice.

Importantly, as parents and educators, we need to teach our girls to value themselves, their contribution and their abilities. They certainly won’t work for organisations that don’t reflect the diverse world in which they live and the values that any forward-thinking person holds dear.   

I am always telling my daughters that they are lucky to have been born in what I call ‘The Century of Women’, when there are so many choices – an era in which women from diverse backgrounds are achieving success across business, the arts and the media, and where women are paving the way for others like never before. I believe we are on the cusp of changing the course of history, as the evidence for a gender-equal world becomes ever more compelling and women continue to shatter glass ceilings, defy convention and change the world for the better.


  1. Grant Thornton, Women in Business Report 2017
  2. Harvard Business Review –Defend Your Research: What Makes a Team Smarter? More Women
  3. Harvard Business Review - Women Directors Change How Boards Work
  4. Eagly AH, Johannesen-Schmidt MC, van Engen ML. - Transformational, transactional, and laissez-faire leadership styles: a meta-analysis comparing women and men
  5. Global Tolerance – The values revolution