Women have made countless advances in leadership, yet globally, women occupy less than 25% of senior roles in organizations, a figure that’s remained steady for the last decade. In boardrooms, government offices, and the classroom, women and girls are still significantly behind their male counterparts when it comes to filling leadership roles.

We’ve spent decades researching these trends and actively involving ourselves in the solution. Our innovation labs — designed to spark action, create networks, and share among participants — are just one of the most recent examples of how we’re trying to pull people together to create solutions.

That’s because we know that this will take a group effort. And we believe that we can only make the necessary progress if we focus collectively on:

Reinventing what it means to be a leader.

Initiating partnerships and starting conversations.

Supporting women and girls by providing safe spaces to learn to lead.

Educating and engaging others about the role they can play in creating the environment that liberates leadership potential in women and girls.

In June 2017, we held an initial lab in Silicon Valley co-sponsored by Watermark and hosted by Nest, a Google company. Watermark is the Bay Area’s largest membership organization dedicated to increasing the number of women in leadership positions, and more than 40 of their influential women members participated in the innovation lab. Here’s what we learned.

Reinventing What It Means to Be a Leader

Research shows that the term “leader” is typically defined in traditionally masculine terms such as aggressive, confident, decisive, and authoritative. While these terms can refer to women, they tend to bring images of men to mind. When we asked innovation lab participants to reinvent leadership from a woman-centered perspective, we heard terms such as authentic, intelligent, inclusive, and able to grow and retain talent.

Initiating Partnerships and Starting Conversations

We also asked these influential and successful women to imagine the press headlines in 5 years after many partnerships and networks supportive of women’s and girls’ leadership have been in place. The responses demonstrated a range of accomplishments, including “First Female President.” “Universal Healthcare for All,” and “Top 70% of CEOs are Women.”

Participants also discussed what actions would be needed to accomplish these goals, which led to several key ideas including an increase in male allies, women advocating for each other, a new structure of networks formed around issues and activities of interest to women, and changes in policy, beliefs, and family structures.

Supporting Women by Providing Safe Spaces to Learn

When girls and women can participate in groups that encourage their confidence and develop their leadership capabilities, they’re more likely to step into leadership roles. Single-gender schools, clubs, and leadership development programs are some of the ways that this happens already.

Yet these opportunities aren’t broadly available to all girls and women. Our group of Silicon Valley leaders suggested several ideas that could make these “spaces” more ubiquitous, including:

  • Supporting girls through cross-generational mentoring.
  • Leveraging existing infrastructure, such as schools.
  • Developing leadership through sports programs.
  • Using schools and social media, help preteens become advocates for themselves, and helping teenage girls get jobs as interns at tech companies.
  • Connecting currently independent women’s organizations — rather than competing for the same audience — to combine their power and influence.

Educating and Engaging Others

Finally, we asked innovation lab participants how to engage and educate others. They gave us insightful ideas about how to engage men, organizations, the media, governments, and legislators. Since then, we’ve held several additional innovation labs, each time building on what we learned in the last. We will continue to explore potential solutions as we move forward together.

Learn more about our Advancing Technical Women program and download the full report below to explore our findings.

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