This International Women’s Day, we have the privilege of celebrating the many women who have taken on leadership positions in local, national and international communities. These women are breaking records, shifting the public narrative, and making history. And as I ponder the success of women like this, I’ve found myself asking, “What does it take to become a successful leader as a woman? How can I make a change?” To answer these questions, I look to my life experiences and how they’ve shaped my understanding of what it takes to be a successful, woman leader.
Throughout my life, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing astounding women lead in their personal and professional lives. In them, I’ve noticed distinct traits — like an affinity for sisterhood, vulnerability, and balance — that seem to be the foundation of their leadership. I’m not the only one who has noticed that women leaders often share the same unique abilities. There are an abundance of articles that dissect the differences between women and men who lead in the workplace. Women are more persuasive, more willing to take initiative, and more empathetic, along with a whole host of other things. Of course, not all leaders are the same, but with the challenges women face in a male-dominated society, I believe there are particular tools we need to press on.
My journey to understanding the power of women who lead begins with my mother and her six sisters. I was born into their matriarchal family of tight-knit siblings, all of whom attribute the longevity and success of our family to their ability to stay together despite hardship. When my mother and her siblings were just children — the youngest barely a toddler — they lost their mom suddenly. My aunt, at just 17 years old, took responsibility for her brothers and sisters and refused to let the family fall apart. Her tenacity and strength set the foundation for a familial structure centered on togetherness that would leave no one behind. This built an unyielding bond between my mother and her sisters, which has shaped the ways in which they lead their families and their lives. In short, the basis for my aunt’s success as a leader was nurturing a sisterhood.
I lucked out and found much more than a sisterly bond. I discovered the impact of horizontal networks during times when balancing school and extracurriculars became too difficult. Being a student leader was further complicated by the gender- and race-based stereotypes I faced as a Black woman. The doubts of others challenged the sense of confidence I had in my ability to lead. To persevere, I made use of the most powerful resource — the women around me. I found that many of my peers shared the desire to lead the charge in making a difference in their classrooms, communities, and beyond. But we all needed each other to feel like leadership was more than just an aspiration. We leaned on each other to navigate difficult and unfriendly spaces. We built each other up in the face of adversity or opposition. We called upon our collective strength to rise above skepticism and trust ourselves. We became the leaders we knew we could be because we supported one another. A wide network of supportive peers has been essential to my continuing success as a leader.
When I think about my professional experiences and the women who have led me, all have one thing in common: the inclination to give back. I have been fortunate enough to work in majority-woman spaces led by women in every job and internship thus far. With each position, my superiors made it a point to invest in me and their employees. I could come to my superiors with anything, personal or professional. They wanted to pass on their wealth of knowledge and help me navigate precarious professional spaces. They opened themselves up to be mentors, giving guidance whenever needed and helping me develop as a leader. As I grow into my career, I want to follow my mentors’ example and lift up and guide other women. This spring, I am excited to have the chance to do just that with Project Girls for Girls (G4G).
G4G is a 501(c)(3) organization with a mission to help young women develop the courage, vision, and skills to take on public leadership. Founded by nine Harvard Kennedy School graduate women, G4G was created to fill the gender gap in public leadership. Since 2017, the organization has served women in Uganda, Kenya, Niger, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Iceland, supporting them in their growth to take on critical issues in their communities. G4G gives promising young women access to a global network of esteemed women leaders who serve as mentors. It also fosters a community in which participants can confide in and learn from each other. In my role as an intern, I am assisting with the launch of the very first U.S. G4G program at the University of Maryland. We are off to an energetic start with sixteen amazing college women who are eager to drive change and strengthen relationships with each other and mentors. In each and every one of them I see the embodiment of the principles I’ve discovered in successful women who lead:
Sisterhood — a bond with other women that can withstand difficult times;
Horizontal networks — peer-to-peer connections that help you dream bigger than ever before; and
Mentorship — leaders who are willing to lift up those who come after her.
Your story may be different from mine, but ask yourself, “What does it take to become a successful leader as a woman, and how can I make a change?” See what you come up with. Consider seeking out sisterhood in unexpected places, building a horizontal network, or giving back to the women who will follow in your footsteps. Together, we can all break records, shift narratives, and make history.
Morgan Johnson is a Project Girls for Girls and United State of Women Intern. Currently, she is a second-year Master in Public Policy student with a focus in Nonprofit Management and Leadership at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is from Bowie, MD. Morgan is passionate about women’s and girls’ rights and advancing political advocacy for women all over the world, especially for those most marginalized. She serves as President of Black Students in Public Policy (UMD) and received a B.A. in Government and Politics, with a minor in Black Women’s Studies and a certificate in Latin American Studies at the University of Maryland.