A victory by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton next month would add one more name to the list of the fewer than two dozen female heads of state and prime ministers in the world. But the number of women in high-ranking positions — ministers, governors, parliament members and CEOs — is growing.
And despite the different cultural and political backgrounds among those powerful women, there are striking similarities among them, according to researcher Susan Madsen, who studies the development of prominent female leaders in the United States and other countries.
"I've done very in-depth interviews with some women leaders in Eastern and Central Europe, China and also in the Middle East," said Madsen, at professor at Utah Valley University in Utah. "I've got very interesting similarities, actually, with all the women."
Politics at the dinner table
Female leaders are raised in a similar family environment, according to Madsen.
"The dinner table conversation was when many of these women found their voices," Madsen said. "Their fathers encouraged them to talk about the issues, around what was happening in the town, whether it was politics, or issues in schools. They actually were able to really have good conversations where the children were not hushed, where the children were asked to share their opinions."
They were also encouraged to listen thoughtfully to others.
"Either mothers or teachers or whatever helped them learn to reflect more effectively than a lot of other people," she explained. "If you don't know how to reflect well and learn from your mistakes, you're just not going to progress and be a strong leader. [I] also found that all of the women actually were avid readers, and their parents encouraged them to read and learn."
In addition, Madsen found that most prominent female leaders used to play team sports.
"It's actually quite amazing how much you can learn from team sports, including helping women and girls understand how to lose and be OK with that — know that you have to get up and try the next time, and how to work with the team," she said. "The research says that women in the workplace sometimes are not good at supporting each other. They actually will cut each other down, but team sports actually help you develop positive relationships with other women and build them up."
Distinctly female leadership style
Madsen, who teaches management classes, also serves as a director for several women's advocacy organizations, including the Utah Women and Education Initiative and the Utah Women and Leadership Project.
She noted that women's approach to leadership is different than men's.
"Generally speaking, women are just more collaborative," she said. "They really listen better. Research has shown women actually observe nonverbal behaviors better than men. They see more subtle things that are happening and can adjust and adapt, and really bring other people into the conversations.
"Women ask different questions and talk about different things. So women in politics ... we will bring up and have our voices on different issues than men. Those issues are things like education — and this is not just in the U.S. — health care, child care, family issues, social programs [and] homelessness. We still bring up, as women, other issues, but we tend to bring up some of those issues that really represent the society."
Lessons from challenges, mistakes
But there are common obstacles that often keep women from playing a more prominent role in their societies, Madsen says.
"It doesn't matter the country, it doesn't matter the income level or cultures — different studies say women have less confidence than men,” Madsen said. "Also, women don't aspire generally, as much as men, to be leaders. That comes from girls and women not seeing women as leaders. The social norm is that men should be leaders more than women, just because that's how it's been done for years.
“Perfectionism in women can be a barrier, as well," she added. "If a man has 50 to 60 percent of the knowledge and skills, he'll put up that application, he'll file to run. With women, the research says, it's about 90 to 100 percent — that a woman wouldn't apply for a job or file for public office unless she's almost perfect."
To change that mindset, Madsen says, societies have to remove some of the hurdles that stand in the way of female empowerment.
"We have to help girls and women understand the importance of becoming a leader," she explained. "We've got to teach them that they actually can be leaders and they actually should be leaders.
"We've got to provide girls and women more with experiences that will increase their aspiration to be leaders, so they can see they can lead in situations to help people around them. We need to help them understand how to network, and provide them with more mentoring opportunities."
Madsen says women who have risen to positions of power have yet another common responsibility: leading by example, to inspire the next generation of female leaders to do the same.