Dr. Susan R. Madsen, Professor of Leadership and Ethics in the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University, discusses with us today the importance of women in leadership. For over more than a decace now,  she has been heavily involved in researching the lifetime development of prominent women leaders. Her most recent work can be found in her book 'Women and Leadership around the world'. The third volume in a new series of books Women and Leadership: Research, Theory, and Practice.

"I wanted to learn more about leadership not only for my own professional development, but so that I could help more girls and women find their voice and confidence."

Media Change: What inspired you to start researching women and leadership?

Susan: I have always loved the idea of developing the resources we have as human beings - our strengths, competencies, skills, and abilities. My doctorate was in human resource development, which included, in part, leadership and training. Then, when I went back to work full-time after all four of my children were in primary school, so many people commented on my strong leadership skills. I had the ability to make things happen and move efforts along, and people noticed. I think it was the combination of my lifetime interest in development, my doctoral education, and my own love for and experience in leading. I wanted to learn more about leadership not only for my own professional development, but so that I could help more girls and women find their voice and confidence, and also to help them become more influential. I started my first women and leadership research study in about 2005, and I was totally hooked after that! I truly feel called to do the work I do, and that keeps me going!

MC: What do you think is crucial in order to develop strong leadership skills in girls and young women? What are the obstacles which prevent us from achieving this development?

S: The most crucial thing, in my opinion, is that we work to increase the aspirations of girls and women to lead. If they don’t aspire to lead, they won’t push themselves to develop leadership and they won’t lean in” to being in situations where they can develop leadership. We need to help women “see” and “identify” themselves as leaders, which includes helping them understand the broad definition of leadership. We also need to help girls and women increase their confidence, which means they need to be okay with struggle, failure, risks, and not being perfect. These are some of the most fundamental elements needed to develop leadership. In terms of the second part of the question, there are internal and external barriers. Internal barriers include things like confidence and avoidance of opportunities that may result in failure – the popular book “Lean In” discusses so much of this. There are also still too many external barriers, which include things like the glass ceiling, the gender wage gap, socialisation, unconscious bias, organisational processes and systems that benefit male-dominated cultures, a lack of opportunities for women in networking and mentoring, and more. There is still a lot of work to do!

MC: What has this research taught you about leadership in general?

S: It has taught me that leaders are not just born. Sure, some people are born with strong competencies and strengths for leading in certain situations, but it is very clear that leadership can also be developed. That means everyone can strengthen their skills and abilities to lead and influence. In addition, the research has taught me that there is a lot of work to be done in the area of unconscious bias. This is at the root of so many elements of this complex topic. Until people, men and women alike, really understand and bring out into the open biases and assumptions at the individual, organisational, and societal levels, we cannot move forward at the rate that is possible. We need to become more conscious as individuals and leaders. When that happens, it is amazing how much progress can be made. Finally, the research has taught me that there is truly a crisis of leadership right now. We must have stronger and better prepared leaders, and that must include more women. The world has become so complex that we need to reach out and develop more individuals to lead. We need more educational and developmental opportunities for them to do this, and helping people understand why we need more female leaders is a critical element of this work.

MC: Are you optimistic about the future of women in leadership?

S: Absolutely! There is an awful lot of research happening now in many countries around the world which will help us understand how girls and women can better develop, but more importantly there are more media and articles that are attracting the attention of many. It has been critical to get the conversation started, but now it has started and is moving forward. Also, what has become clear is that leadership development programmes and initiatives are working. If organisations, communities, and countries will create and embrace well-researched initiatives for women – they are working! Although there is still a lot of work to be done, best practice and research has shown us that the future of women’s leadership can be bright.  

MC: What would you like to explore next, or which are the next steps, for your research in women and leadership?

S: For a few years I have not had a lot of time to move the original research forward, but I have decided to put my efforts towards bringing together other people’s research. I have completed three co-edited books in the last few years and am currently working on the “Handbook of Research on Gender and Leadership” for Elgar Edward Publishing. It will include 27 chapters that will really provide a foundation for better theory development and research on women and leadership as we move forward. I also maintain some websites that provide resources for scholars, practitioners, and girls/women who want to become leaders. Resources can be powerful. When I can make the time, I would love to do more research to help us understand what aspirations girls and women have towards leadership. I don’t think we have a good grasp on understanding what is happening and how to strengthen aspirations to lead. There is so much important research to be done.