Being courageous, being authentic, being brave: Women’s leadership in the 21st Century

Leading bravely, the theme of this year’s GlobeMed summit, sparked inspiring conversations about what it means to lead in today’s context; cultural pluralism, social justice, activism were at the center of the discussions over this two-day event. Moreover the theme highlighted women leading, particularly women of color, through the event’s keynotes. Their messages of being courageous, being authentic, and being brave resonated throughout the summit. I had the opportunity to introduce the keynote session on Women’s Leadership in the 21st Century, bringing greater visibility to the context of what it means to be a woman and uncover some of the power and privileges that impact the experience of being a woman.

It was a privilege to be able to speak to the attendees of this session. Dear to my heart are the formative years of college and discovery- as is the spirit of challenging the status quo.

As we began our session on leadership, I wanted everyone to reflect on the leadership in their lives—the leadership of their role-models, mentors, colleagues, friends, family—the women, men and all others. I also encouraged the audience to reflect on their collective power, their privileges, and their success. In order to do this, I asked them to reflect upon and answer a few questions:

  • If you feel comfortable with sharing, please raise your hands if your grandmother lived in the US, spoke English, went to high-school? College? graduate school? Decided when and who to marry? Earned a paycheck.

  • Raise your hands if your mother completed high-school? Chose her profession? College? Graduate school? Decided when and who to marry? Has been Employed? Led her team/unit? department? company?

  • Raise your hand if your born in the US, if English is your first language, if you speak a second language? If you completed high-school? College? Graduated School? Can chose your profession, can decide who you date? Have you had an unpaid internship? Have you lived in another city, state than you are from, another country? If you are in the majority in your community? In the room?

The audience was given a moment to reflect upon their answers and the courage in taking a step to uncover their own privileges. I hoped this exercise helped them to recognize their power and the power in the room, as everyone was leading bravely by being there, regardless of the path before them and the path to come.

Introducing a panel about Women’s Leadership in the 21st Century, I reflected upon my own story, one that is only beginning, as I’m only two decades in:

I consider myself a woman between two centuries –the stories of my grandmother and mother’s upbringing in India are fresh in my mind, yet I have been fortunate to have had more more choices than any other woman in my family – deciding my career (to become a physician), who to marry, where to live, etc. Yet when it comes to the subtle and not so subtle realities of being a woman in the 21st century, we are not equal and I am reminded of this almost daily. Whether it is the stark headlines in my social media feed informing me of what leadership skills I need as a woman to succeed, to the reminders in my clinical practice when patients refer to me as their nurse and ask for the doctor or comment on my looks. In social engagements, people I call friends, refer to me as a cheerleader and I am never the right “age” for whatever they are involved in. The right age seems to always be in the future, no matter how much closer I get to this ‘right age’, and I am rarely taken as the inspiring leader I am. When I make personal and career decisions, I also must factor in my personal safety—with the high numbers of assault women experience, being a woman itself requires courage. Thank-you for listening- it is a glimpse of my story, being a woman born in the 20th century, living in the 21st century.

Keynote speakers K. Sujata and Jane Ekayu shared their stories, lessons learned and advice for forging ahead. As we look to the future, we must also look at what has been accomplished this far. Being brave and leading the global community into bravery requires reflection:

1. Women have made progress.

They are determined, skilled and the numbers reflect how highly trained women are. In the US, women have outnumbered men on college campuses since 1988 and they earn almost 60% of the awarded undergraduate degrees and master’s degrees. Women earn 50% of all doctorates (up from 21% in 1977) and earn nearly half of all law degrees and medical degrees [1]. Globally, as a result of many initiatives more and more girls and young women are receiving education.

2. There are more women in leadership positions, but stagnation has hit.

In the US, while the numbers sometimes have tripled or even increased 10 fold in certain fields, women remain stuck at the quarter mark in representation as equity law partners, medical school deans, and CEOs. In politics, women’s representation peaks at 10% to 25%. In other words, for those who like ratios: women have been 1:1 in qualifications in many fields since the 1980s and yet in 2017, women still are 1:4, sometimes as little as 1:20 in positions of leadership [2, 3].

Globally, just 7% of governments, 4.5% of major corporations, 14% of leading universities, and 2% of the world’s religions are currently led by women [4]. In Global Health, women make up 75% of the health workforce in many countries, yet only 38% of the top jobs in global health (across government, UN, foundation, business, global health initiatives and universities) are held by women.

3. There are those that are less visible and then those that are invisible.

The story becomes more complicated when evaluated from a power & privilege and intersectional lens. Women of color represent even a smaller fraction of this representation of women. For example, women of color represent only 6.2% in the American government, 4% of governors, and 4.2% of state legislators [3]. There are also the non-binary genders whose stories are almost completely unheard.

4. For women, equal work does not result in equal pay.

Even with all of the training, skills development, and the research backing how gender parity results in higher economic return and sustained growth (estimated that the global economy would grow 28 trillion), it is unlikely that all of the women in this room will receive a “fair, equal” paycheck before they retire [5]. Progress has been made in certain areas, but when it comes to the most influential spaces, women are still not present. Women leaders can deliver substantial development, peace & security, economic and health benefits for communities worldwide. So what is needed to lead bravely, to lead with courage?

Data Sources:

[1] American Progress, 2015:

[2] American Progress, 2015:

[3] Pew Social Trends, 2017:

[4] Just Actions, 2016:

[5] McKinsey, 2015:

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