Advancing women’s leadership: Lessons from ILA

Boardroom with women leaders

Lessons from the International Leadership Association

As leadership educators, occasionally we hear from students that there is no longer a need to pay special attention to supporting women and other minorities in their leadership, nor is there need for feminism. This sentiment—which can be loosely described as “I don’t see gender”—is just as problematic as refusing to see other systemic factors that lead to homogenous workplaces. This blog post identifies persistent challenges women face and offers specific strategies to advance women’s leadership.

Persistent challenges

In focusing solely on women’s advancements to date and stating that there is no longer a need for feminism, sometimes it remains difficult for people to see:

(a) beyond their own experiences, for example, as white, cisgender, hetero, able-bodied, class privileged people;

(b) the overt ways that women continue to be physically and psychologically harmed or killed, at home, in the community, at school, in healthcare settings, and in the workplace;

(c) the subtle, systemic ways that women continue to be sexualized, gaslighted, undermined, and ridiculed in pop culture, advertising, the media, and the workplace; and

(d) the ways women are socialized to defer to men and not push beyond traditional roles, especially into positions of leadership.

There are multiple examples of how the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women, from domestic violence and workplace inequities, to the unequal distribution of women in caring professions and caring for dependants at home. In addition, Indigenous women, racialized women, transgender and nonbinary people, women with disabilities, immigrants, homeless and underhoused women, and others who are less likely to be helped by the police are more likely to experience violence (see also Rosenfeld, 2022, p. 218).

How can we address these persistent challenges?

I recently attended an International Leadership Association (ILA) panel on “Women and Leadership in This Moment in Time” with Reta Lewis, Susan Madsen, and Diane Rosenfeld, moderated by Betsy Myers.

Here are some key takeaways from the panel:

Inspiration from Bonobo Monkeys

Panellist Diane Rosenfeld’s new book (2022) draws from the study of Bonobo monkeys, with whom humans share 98.7% of our DNA. What is remarkable about Bonobos is that—unlike other species—Bonobo “females live free from sexual coercion and harassment by all males. Period” (p. x). When a female Bonobo lets out a cry of distress, all other females within earshot come to her support whether or not they know or even like her.

Rosenfeld suggests that women can draw inspiration from the Bonobos to create new forms of alliances. If we consider that patriarchy—as a form of institutionalized sexism—is the result of male-male alliances, then more intentional alliances between cis- and transgender women, queer, and nonbinary people can reduce and perhaps even prevent violence from being the organizing principle in society.

Rosenfeld invites us to embrace the principles of:

1.      No one has the right to harm my sister

2.      Everyone is my sister

Intergenerational Leadership Alliances

The panel discussed how limited opportunities for women in leadership can create competition among women instead of looking more broadly at the organizational structures, policies, practices, and cultures that limit women’s leadership. Panel members described their experiences hearing how some junior women were waiting for senior women to retire to open leadership positions. Panellists commented on how this idea is limited in that there is no longer a set age for retirement and some people derive great meaning from their work; therefore, waiting for another’s retirement is not the best strategy.

In some cases, intergenerational misunderstandings also become a major barrier to women collaborating. Women operating at different levels of an organization, of different generations, of diverse backgrounds, and holding divergent perspectives need to find new ways to hold one another in equal esteem, truly listen to and hear one another, and collaborate to transform their organizations. In addition, drawing again from Bonobo society, Rosenfeld (2022) calls upon senior women to look out for junior women in their organizations—not in a way that's patronizing or that reproduces patriarchal leadership styles, but from a place of respect and care.

Everyday examples: Amplifying women’s voices

Members of the panel identified that every time women sit at a table with other leaders, they need to be ready to stand up for themselves and for other women. For example, it is still common for women to make comments in professional settings, only to have a male colleague paraphrase or even directly repeat the point and be credited with the idea. Although one might suggest taking the high road and being satisfied with the idea advancing more than the credit, this ubiquitous example is another way that women’s contributions go unrecognized.

As a counter-strategy to this every day, systemic challenge, RRU Professor, Dr. Jennifer Walinga, coaches women to work together and make a concerted effort to amplify one another’s voices. We can ensure the original speaker receives credit by using the phrase, as [woman’s name] said earlier. We are further encouraged to point out when a woman has previously stated the same idea being repeated. In addition, we can transform what leadership looks like by seeking opportunities for power with, to, and within.

Mentors, sponsors, and allies

The panellists pointed out that sometimes men with good intentions self-identify as an ally and endeavour to mentor their female colleagues. Although there may indeed be instances where women are seeking mentors, the role as a mentor ought not to be presumed. Moreover, mentorship is not always what’s needed. Sometimes, women who are unknown to senior leaders need a sponsor more than a mentor—someone to praise or fight for them behind closed doors. Importantly, the panellists were clear that the term ally—whether to women or others—should not be claimed for oneself. It has to be gifted.

Feminism is for everyone

Over 20 years ago, bell hooks wrote that “feminism is for everyone” insofar as it is a movement to end sexism and oppression in all its forms. In this sense, feminism is not against men—it is for humanity and for systems that work better for everyone than the current organizing principles of patriarchy. Feminism is aspirational in encouraging us to work toward organizations and communities where everyone can flourish. Drawing upon the notion of beloved community, hooks (2000) saw a world where “fully self-actualized [humans of all identities are] able to create beloved community, to live together, realizing our dreams of freedom and justice” (p. x). The ILA panellists provided tangible steps in helping us to achieve just that.

Photo credit: Christine @

Author notes

1. Special thanks to Drs Jennifer Walinga and Wanda Krause for their comments on earlier versions of this post.

2. The October 14, 2022, ILA panel on women and leadership was moderated by Betsy Myers, Founder & President, Myers Leadership; Founder, Center for Women and Business at Bentley University; Former Senior Adviser to Presidents Clinton and Obama.

Panel members included:

Reta Lewis, President and Chair of the Board of Directors, Export-Import Bank of the United States

Susan R. Madsen, Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership, Jon M Huntsman School of Business, Utah State University

Diane Rosenfeld, Founding Director, Gender Violence Program, Harvard Law School


hooks, b. (2000). Feminism is for everybody: Passionate politics. Pluto.

Rosenfeld, D. L. (2022). The Bonobo sisterhood: Revolution through female alliance. Harper Collins.