Gender Inequality

Will the digital revolution make it tougher for women leaders?

Image: REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Alice Gast
President, Imperial College London
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Gender Inequality

Much will be said this International Women’s Day about the number of women in leadership positions, the percentage of women on boards and the trends in this data. Clearly there are very capable women in the world and, slowly, perhaps, they are moving into positions of leadership. They find themselves working side by side with men, some of whom are collegial and supportive and some who are competitive and aggressive. Rather than cite statistics and data, I thought I would share some of my perceptions about women in leadership roles in today’s competitive, connected and collaborative environment.


I have heard it said that sometimes women internalize failure. I suppose I have experienced this at least by witnessing the way men seem to react to setbacks. I recall from my undergraduate days, seeing the apparent bravado of the male students after receiving the results of a challenging physics exam. They blamed any bad results on the professor or the exam itself, while we female students thought we were at fault!

Sometimes the tough stance, and the set jaw, mask some insecurity and competitiveness that we all share to some extent. Having spent most of my career in groups of men with few women present, I have seen some of the ways that competition and desire to succeed propels dynamics in a group. Some leaders focus on the values, the purpose and the goal, others get distracted or confused by their own situation and focus on what outcomes they can manoeuvre for themselves.

We see hyper-competitiveness work against men as well. Many have sat on a committee or board in the presence of someone, nearly always male, who needs to affirm their place as “the smartest person in the room”. I think that savvy members, both male and female, watch the bluster with amusement and wait for the right time to contribute to the conversation. This behaviour has a corollary in the seizing of a good idea, without attribution to its genesis, and the competitive compulsion to receive “credit” for it. The mature and self-assured can also let this go by knowing that they will have more good ideas. Perhaps this is changing; I’ve recently witnessed a number of examples where a male colleague has made a specific effort to place credit for an earlier idea suggested by a woman.

They say you need a “thick skin” to be a leader. I translate this to self-confidence and ability to withstand unfriendly behaviour and criticism. Marie Curie said it well: Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.

I think that men and women alike are facing a harder and harder road to thick skins and leadership because of the new era of technology and connectivity.


The massive benefits of having information in your pocket cannot be denied. I enjoy as much as anyone checking the news and the weather, or listening to music and a podcast; however, within this vast sea of information and connectivity, I think there are two rising challenges that we face as a society.

Firstly, people can surround themselves with information that they agree with and miss out on more balanced viewpoints. News is becoming more sensational and escalating discord rather than discourse.

Secondly, now everyone can be a judge, critic or pundit. Anonymity makes this even worse as the “court of public opinion” often becomes an argument between extremist views hidden behind the cloak of anonymity.

This new world of public criticism and judgement makes being a leader and having a thick skin harder. Leadership in the time of Twitter, Facebook and anonymous comments on anything published can be lonely and demoralizing.

In his book, World Order, Henry Kissinger laments the way new technology makes it harder to lead. He says:

"To undertake a journey on a road never before traveled requires character and courage: character because the choice is not obvious; courage because the road will be lonely at first…The mindset for walking lonely political paths may not be self-evident to those who seek confirmation by hundreds, sometimes thousands of friends on Facebook."

He worries about what this does to people who would naturally be leaders:

"Information at one’s fingertips encourages the mindset of a researcher but may diminish the mindset of a leader…The pursuit of transparency and connectivity in all aspects of existence, by destroying privacy, inhibits the development of personalities with the strength to take lonely decisions."

I think that this trend may exacerbate the challenges we have in recruiting and supporting women leaders. If it is true that some women internalize issues and we are not as aggressive or competitive, then perhaps we may be more vulnerable to the sweep of critical and sometimes insulting commentary now provided through social media. In order to counter this and to fully support our leaders, we must promote more balanced viewpoints by providing leaders with gender balanced boards and councils.


One thing that connectivity brings is ease in collaboration. We can now know and learn from people all over the world. We can maintain relationships at a distance. We can work together on projects of common interest. One of the most exciting trends in leadership that I see is the recognition of the importance of collaboration. By gathering a group of the best minds around a table, a leader can benefit from and amplify the excellent ideas that come from a diverse set of perspectives. I see this at Imperial College London where we have a very collaborative environment.

This era of collaboration requires good listening, respectful dialogue and sometimes disagreement and a spirit of cooperation despite underlying competition. Many women and men excel at this and you see women assuming critical positions on committees and boards. I’ve seen many women, not always at the head of the table, serving as the “WD-40” for the board: the lubricant that brings out the best of the group by reducing friction and enabling collaboration. Sometimes that role is recognised and appreciated, but often it is unsung.

There are some very impressive women today who are sitting at the heads of important tables and driving excellent collaborations. One such inspiring leader is Indri Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo who led a collaboration with her stiffest competition and worked with one of the sector’s most ardent critics to drive trillions of calories from the American diet. Nooyi’s approach is captured in her take on managing a crisis: “One should not shy away from creating an environment of adaptability.”

In his lost interview, Steve Jobs describes the team that produced the Macintosh in terms of a rock tumbler.

He talks about: “Some regular old ugly rocks. And we put them in the can with a little bit of liquid and little bit of grit powder … and the common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other … creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had become beautiful polished rocks.”

It was his “metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about. It’s that through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together they polish each other and they polish the ideas, and what comes out are these really beautiful stones.”

Women can be both the WD40 and the “grit powder”. When women lead on breaking down barriers to collaboration, significant progress is achieved and rocks are polished into beautiful stones.

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