Invited to speak at a conference in Algiers on women’s empowerment, social entrepreneur Greta Rossi reflects on the issue of gender inequality and invites women and girls around the world to find their way towards emancipation by embracing and cultivating their feminine qualities

“One day I will…” If we could hear all the women and girls of the world complete this sentence, we would surely feel inspired by the creative potential for positive change. Although we might not have the opportunity to listen to the hopes of each unique individual, to mark this year’s International Women’s Day, Google produced a Google Doodle asking women to answer this statement to celebrate the diverse aspirations that make up our collective voice.

One day I will… finish writing a book on feminine leadership. I certainly feel the need for this now if we are to empower young women to one day choose to become wholehearted leaders in the service of people and planet.

I got a sharp reminder in March that the achievement of a few women occupying top leadership positions is not nearly enough in the struggle for gender equality. I had been invited to be the keynote speaker at Our Time To Lead, a conference dedicated to celebrating women’s empowerment through technology. Held in the Algerian capital of Algiers, the event was run by non-profit organisation Women Techmakers and sponsored by Google.

The young women in their early twenties who made up the majority of the audience proved to be extremely receptive to my own story as a young female social entrepreneur. Yet, when I asked them to think of the leader who inspired them most, only a dozen from well over two hundred attendees admitted to choosing a female role model.

An astonished buzz filled the room and was followed with shock as we reflected together on the leadership qualities that their role models embodied. Most of the young women identified typically masculine characteristics as those essential to be an effective leader. Although many admired traits such as problem solving and strength, only a handful mentioned typically feminine qualities such as intuition and empathy. This brief experiment perhaps highlights that even our best intentions to support women in leadership have been approached in the wrong way.

It is important that young women continue to build some of the recognisable traits of masculine leadership, but we are setting them up for failure unless we also help them to cultivate feminine leadership

The ‘male norm’ has become accepted as the ‘human norm’. This normalisation and internalisation of gender-based inequality and discrimination has become so ‘natural’ that many people still do not realise how gender has been operating as a fundamental structure of oppression for centuries. As feminist scholar Karen Beckwith warns: “Gender is so central to the politics of countries and people as to be invisible.”

It is important that young women continue to build some of the recognisable traits of ‘masculine’ leadership, but we are setting them up for failure unless we also help them cultivate ‘feminine’ leadership. The masculine qualities that we value in men can all too often take on negative connotations when embodied by female leaders. There are far too many instances of assertive and straightforward women in top leadership positions being labelled as aggressive and power-hungry.

We must also learn to embrace and celebrate qualities of feminine leadership if we are to foster collaboration and transformation. Nobel prize nominee and peace activist Scilla Elworthy says that by embracing both energies we will be able to tap into the creative potential that comes from a powerful union of mind and heart. Imagine how much more powerful we would be if we were able to, in Elworthy’s words, “combine reflection with action, psychological insight with political realism, emotional empathy with clear analysis, and inner spiritual maturity with outer achievement.”

The journey to becoming wholehearted leaders requires a life-long commitment to the inner work of integrating our masculine and feminine energies. But we can spark this process of transformation and empowerment by asking women and girls to complete the sentence “One day I will…” and celebrating their unique aspirations. And we might as well find the courage to start with ourselves. Try it now: One day I will…

Photo: Greta Rossi addressing the Our Time to Lead conference, Algeria