“Every single one of them talked about finding their voices and their confidence at dinner-table conversations with their families. Their parents talked about politics, about what was happening in the community, and when the women had something to say, their parents didn’t hush them,” Madsen said. In the UAE, where men and women were often separated, women that Madsen interviewed pointed to the role of their fathers in encouraging them to speak up. “Every woman I spoke to said her father would bring home books for her to read when he traveled, which most other people didn’t have.”
As part of a series of interviews on women and leadership, I spoke to three women from different countries who have each become leaders in their respective fields: Agnes Igoye of Uganda, who works with her government to counter human trafficking; Ikram Ben Said, the founder of Tunisian women’s-rights organization Aswat Nissa; and Sairee Chahal of India, who started SHEROES, a digital platform that helps women get back into the workforce. In these conversations I saw Madsen’s observation borne out.
All three of my interviewees pointed to the family environment they had been raised in—particularly a father figure who taught and empowered the women in the family to learn, ask questions, and form their own opinions—as a key factor in their own growth. This, coupled with mothers or other older women who broke convention by displaying leadership within the family, was common source of early lessons on leadership.
Igoye, for example, credited her father with having the foresight to send his daughters to school despite opposition from others in their village. Her mother went back to school as an adult to improve her career as a teacher, which Igoye described as being a big influence on her. Similarly, Ben Said talked about how her father encouraged political debate among the family when she was growing up, even when her opinions contradicted his. Meanwhile, Chahal said that even in her younger days, her parents went against the general convention of expecting their daughters to aspire only to a good matrimonial match.
Another conclusion from Madsen’s work is that women’s leadership development doesn’t look like men’s. “Men are more strategic and [tend to follow] a more linear path to becoming a leader. Women’s paths are much more emergent. They tend to not necessarily look ahead and think, ‘I want to be on top.’ Women would point to a number of experiences—motherhood, or working with a non-profit, or sitting on a board, as shaping their path to becoming leaders,” she said. Madsen likens this to a “patchwork quilt” of experiences—an aggregate that is more clear and cohesive together than as distinct parts.
Which is why women are more likely to take a grassroots route to politics, says Farida Jalalzai of Oklahoma State University, and the author of Shattered, Cracked and Firmly Intact: Women and the Executive Glass Ceiling Worldwide and Women Presidents of Latin America: Beyond Family Ties? “Women are more likely to first get into public life through activism; sometimes it is through their identities as mothers to work on a particular problem,” she explained.