Celebrating what women bring to the table on International Women’s Day

In honor of International Women’s Day, I’m passing the microphone to my daughter, Ashley Butler, a passionate leader in her own right and a mother of three young children. As many of you know, Ashley is the Executive Director of Lift a Life, the Novak Family Foundation, which provides resources and funding to non-profit organizations with strong and visionary leadership. Ashley was also instrumental in building the Wendy Novak Diabetes Center in partnership with Norton Healthcare and the University of Louisville, which is now ranked 18th in the nation for pediatric endocrinology. In my completely unbiased opinion, the world needs more leaders like Ashley, and I think you’ll really appreciate the thoughts she shares about women and leadership.  

Her words are below...

This year, International Women’s Day (IWD) is centered around the theme #BreakTheBias. The IWD website asks us to “Imagine a gender-equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. A world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated.” 

That last line? It really got me. It got me thinking about women in leadership, and the ways in which they lead differently from men. It got me thinking, what if a “world where difference is valued and celebrated” isn’t the end goal, but the first step on the road to gender equality? What if honoring and amplifying the ways women lead differently is how we #BreakTheBias?

Because the women leaders I know are different. They don’t lead like men because they aren’t men. And I truly believe that their success has come in large part because they bring their womanhood to work with them.

I’m thinking of the school principal, who leads by listening to the teachers at her school, the majority of whom are also women. Studies have shown that women tend to be better listeners than men, but instead of talking about why listening is an essential leadership skill (valuing and celebrating it), we’re inundated with articles about how women need to speak up at work and be more assertive (read: more like men). I’m not knocking assertiveness. I’m suggesting that because we’ve grown so accustomed to a male style of leadership, we too often allow it to define what leadership looks like. Leadership can look a lot of ways—and the sooner we honor all of the characteristics of great leadership, the sooner we’ll break the bias.

I’m thinking of the incredible female physicians I know who give compassionate, empathetic advice to families who are hurting. Research shows that women are more likely to exhibit empathy for those who are suffering, but only recently have we opened ourselves up to the business value of empathy. The recent uptick in articles about empathy as a leadership superpower is heartening. That’s the kind of “value and celebration” I’m talking about. It’s moving the needle and paving the way.

I’m thinking of Ms. Rose Smith in Louisville, an entrepreneur, teacher, organizer, activist, and second mother to so many, who brings all of those roles together by being eternally present. When her son was killed by gun violence in 2014, Ms. Rose founded the ACE project, a non-profit organization for school-age youth, in his memory. In addition to operating a thriving childcare center, she bought and renovated the abandoned property where her son was killed, transforming it into a safehaven and launchpad for children and families in the community. A compassionate and relentless leader, she has channeled a mother’s fierce love—and grief—into uplifting another generation. Ms. Rose defies the laws of physics. She is everywhere, doing everything, for everyone. But when she is with you, she is fully present.

Listening, empathy, compassion, presence. These are not soft skills that come in handy in a crisis. They are powerful facets of exceptional leadership. And they happen to be areas in which many women excel. All of us—not just women--need to recognize and celebrate the strengths that women bring to the leadership table.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting we can simply celebrate our way into equal pay and equal treatment with think pieces. There are mountains upon mountains to climb in the realms of racial justice, care infrastructure, and public policy before we will close the gender gap. What I mean to suggest is that there is often a discernible difference in the way women lead. Whether we attribute that to our innate strengths, our social roles, or the inequities we’ve had to fight to overcome, there is a difference. I want all of us to see and celebrate the difference and assign leadership value to it, out loud, right now. 

In this way, we make the celebration a means to change—and not just the party we have once we get there.

What unsung female leadership traits will you celebrate today? Share them in the comments to help to create a broader vision of what incredible leadership looks like.