What It Means to Be a Woman and a Leader

Introducing an Atlantic project about women’s leadership around the world—including people who aren’t typically thought of as leaders

Michael Abramson / Getty / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

A woman could soon become the president of the United States. It’s been a long time coming: 240 years since the country’s founding; 90 years since suffrage; 51 years since the Voting Rights Act was passed. America was roundly beaten to this landmark—more than five dozen countries around the world have had a female head within the last 50 years.

Even if Hillary Clinton were to lose, the moment would be historic and moving—and a little bit depressing. Her candidacy marks a new era, full of potential, but also full of reminders that women’s leadership is still limited by many factors, including discrimination, economic inequality, and cultural stereotypes.

In the United States, women make up one-quarter of state legislators, one-fifth of Congress, and one-eighth of governors. They account for three out of nine Supreme Court justices—only four have ever served in the institution’s history—and roughly one-third of trial-court and federal court-of-appeal judges. Globally, only 21 women were serving as heads of state or government as of August 2015, and women were roughly one-fifth of the world’s legislators and members of parliament.

In the workplace, women only make up about 40 percent of the managerial class; in 2013, their median annual earnings were roughly $10,000 less than men’s. While women’s wages have increased over time, they’ve gone up significantly more for women who are earning the most money, rather than those who are earning the least. Women still do more childcare and housework than men, although men are assuming a greater share of those responsibilities. And those women who do caregiving work—whether it’s supporting families, tending the health of the elderly, or otherwise—often live without financial security or cultural recognition.

Some of these stats reflect the slow pace of cultural change or the lingering influence of subtle stereotypes about gender. But others betray open hostility: The world is violent toward women. The number of rapes and sexual assaults in the United States went up by roughly 80,000 between 2005 and 2014, and the rate increased as well, according to a national survey; one study estimates that one in five women are sexually assaulted during their time in college. Incidents of assault, rape, and violence are much higher among lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women, particularly those of color.

This list of obstacles is not meant as a litany of despair; in fact, it puts the progress women have made into starker relief. Despite everything holding them back, women now occupy almost every conceivable role in public life. They manage companies, build cities, and start civil-rights movements. They care for children, volunteer at schools, and lead worship. They practice medicine, create art, and run countries. The White House is just the latest potential arena of female conquest.

Over the next four weeks, The Atlantic will look at how these women live and lead, trying to answer three questions: What does it mean to be a “woman,” what does it mean to be a “leader,” and how do those two roles relate? We will examine how notions of femininity shape everything from the way leaders dress to how their voices are described. We’ll explore what it means to lead when a woman is rich, and when she’s not; when a woman is white, and when she’s not; when she’s straight, and when she’s not. Whether a woman’s goal is to “break glass ceilings” in the professional world or mend her family members’ health, to get paid better wages or start a volunteer movement, we’re interested in how she achieves it. Our writers will take up case studies in the United States and abroad, reflecting on stories from history and reporting on women’s lives today. We’ll look at what women have achieved so far and what’s to come—and, perhaps, what’s been lost as women’s roles have changed over time.

“Who run the world?” Beyoncé asked half a decade ago. She was confident of the answer: girls. While her prophecy has not quite come to pass, it’s getting closer to being true. Today’s women are teaching the next generation that there are many ways to be a leader, many ways to be a girl, and many ways to grow into a strong woman.