Leadership for the Greater Good: Reflections on Today’s Challenges From Around the Globe

Barbara Kellerman on Women & Leadership

Photo of Working Mom Saying Goodbye to Daughter
ILA Lifetime Achievement Award Winner, Dr. Barbara Kellerman, shares some of her latest thinking on women and leadership by reflecting on Ursula von der Leyen’s leadership of the European Commission and on the neuroscience of pregnancy.


Barbara Kellerman on Women & Leadership
Part 1. Superwoman – Ursula von der Leyen

In the early 1960s, Betty Friedan wrote the bible of the modern women’s movement, The Feminine Mystique. Her primary purpose was to urge women (especially educated women of a certain class) to realize what she deemed their full potential. How? By getting out of the home — escaping from the suffocating tediousness it implied — and into the workplace.

It would have been difficult for Friedan to imagine that twenty years later, in her second major book The Second Stage, her argument would be entirely different. By the time it was published, Friedan’s concern was not that women were doing too little, but that they were taking on too much. Instead of freeing women, the “superwomanhood” of the 1980s had led to their double enslavement. Still at home and now, additionally, at work.

Since then, the word “superwoman” has come to be part of our lexicon. It’s usually applied to a Western woman who works exceedingly hard to manage and even excel at two, apparently incompatible, tasks. The first is to succeed personally, which means running her home, from cooking and cleaning to childcare and elder care. The second is to succeed professionally, which means advancing her career and bringing home some, most, or even all the bacon. Of course, some men now take on more of the domestic chores than they did a half century ago, but here in the United States women still do most of the housework and caregiving. And in most other countries, the imbalance between what women and men are responsible for, specifically in the home, is often much greater.

The word “superwoman” is sometimes used admiringly, in admiration of a woman who appears to do it all well. And it’s sometimes used disparagingly, in disparagement of a woman who clings to the sadly and badly mistaken idea that it’s possible to do it all well.

The subject regularly comes up in conversations about women and leadership. Can a woman with a child, especially a young child, and especially with more than one child, and especially if she happens to be a single parent, simultaneously be a leader? If yes, what if anything does this say about her as a parent?

Which brings me to the exception that might or might not prove the rule — Ursula von der Leyen. She is one of the most powerful women leaders in the world. She is one of the most powerful leaders in the world — period.

Von der Leyen has been president of the European Commission since 2019. During her tenure she has taken an essentially weak body consisting of a recalcitrant membership and forged the European Union (EU) into a relatively cohesive and forceful global actor. Notwithstanding the crises first of COVID and then of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and notwithstanding her own aloof and patently ambitious executive leadership, von der Leyen has replaced former German Chancellor Angela Merkel as Europe’s most effective single leader.

To be clear, von der Leyen is not loved by her constituents. Nor, I believe, is she destined ultimately to succeed in keeping Europe sufficiently united, able to sustain itself as something akin to a single voice. But she has already established the EU as a global actor with which the rest of the world has to reckon. As one member of the European parliament summarized her impact, “People used to ask what Europe’s phone number is. Now we know. She has given Europe a voice and a face” (Fleming, 2023).

Oh, and did I mention that von der Leyen is a physician?

Oh, and did I mention that under Chancellor Merkel von der Leyen was German Defense Minister?

Oh, and did I mention that she and her husband, Heiko von der Leyen, have seven children?

Barbara Kellerman on Women & Leadership
Part 2. Leadership and Lactation – the Evidence Grows

For some time now, I’ve been interested in the question of why — for all our efforts over the last three decades or so — there are still so few women at the highest rungs of the leadership ladder.

It’s not for lack of trying. Enormous amounts of ink have been spilled and enormous efforts have been made attempting to ameliorate the situation. Sponsors and mentors; explicit bias and implicit bias; parttime and flextime; remote work and hybrid work; diversity and inclusion – each refers to initiatives taken with the best of intentions trying to fix what’s broken. Or what’s ostensibly broken — too few women at the top.

Obviously, there are many more women near the top, and even at the top, than there used to be. But in comparison with men, the numbers are still puny. There has not been a single woman president of the United States or France. There has never been a president or Communist Party chair or prime minister of Russia or China or Japan who was a woman. The percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies who are women finally climbed out of the single digits — for the first time ever — this year; it’s just over 10%. In top U.S. law firms, the percent of women equity partners remains under a quarter. And while more women serve in the U.S. Congress than ever before, the total figure is similar, just over 25 percent.

So… is progress toward gender equity being made? Yes. Is this progress, after all this time, sufficient? No — certainly not ideally.

What then is the problem? Well, it’s not really a “problem.” It’s a truism. Women and men are different. Women and men are physically, psychologically, and sociobiologically not one and the same. The differences between them necessarily have an impact on gender and leadership. Moreover, the differences between (among) them are greatest when pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, and childcare are involved.

For a book that was published in 2018 titled Women’s Leadership Journeys (edited by Sherylle Tan and Lisa DeFrank-Cole), I wrote a chapter titled “Leadership and Lactation.” My thesis was simple: “that the evolutionary origins of gender divisions explain to a considerable extent the meager numbers of women leaders.”

Remember… humans are primates. This explains why a section of my chapter discussed being a primate parent. I observed that among the commonalities of being a primate parent is a level of attachment between mother and child that nearly always far exceeds that between father and child. This impacts on women and leadership. Specifically, woman have a far harder time leaving their child behind while they go off to work — while they go off to lead — than do men. In Sweden, for example, men and women are both given the same amount of time off for parental leave. However, men return to full time work far faster than do women (Sweden, n.d.).

At the time, I pointed out that scientists were only starting to get serious about studying the similarities between human and nonhuman primates. I further suggested the similarities would someday prove consequential, and they would include “many psychological and social mechanisms underlying parenting.” As it turned out, scientists did pursue this line of research. And they did find the impact of pregnancy and parenting on women — as on any other primate — was considerable. This was nicely summarized in a recent article in the Washington Post that read in part: “Neuroscience, which has long studied the effect of pregnancy on animal brains, has finally turned its attention to the effect on the human brain — and the results are challenging commonly held assumptions about women’s intellectual abilities during and after pregnancy” (Chang, 2023).

The article makes clear the following:

  • When a human mother is pregnant and then gives birth her brain changes. It undergoes “an extraordinary period of reorganization known as neuroplasticity.”
  • These changes have some effects some of the time that are negative, such as “mental fogginess.”
  • These changes have some effects some of the time that are positive, such as “improved multitasking and stress endurance.”
  • Though the article does not explicitly say, its content makes clear that some of the time some of the changes are likely to have an impact on women and leadership. This includes the wish to, the will to, the determination to, the capacity to, lead. To, that is, prioritize leading over time with, and energy on, family.

Of course, not all women are mothers. But about 86% of women in the U.S. between the ages of 40 and 44 have given birth to at least one child. Moreover, 25% of all American mothers are raising their children on their own. Finally, not only do women who are pregnant have to deal with changing bodies and brains, once they deliver their babies they have to deal with changing expectations. According to the Pew Research Center (in a report published in 2019) “the public sees vastly different pressure points for women and men in today’s society” (Geiger, et al.) Roughly 77 percent of responders say women face a lot of pressure to be an involved parent. A significantly smaller share, 49 percent, say the same about men.

Implicit in my theory about the importance of the differences between men and women as they pertain to becoming, or to being, a leader is that these differences will endure and that they will have an enduring impact on the numbers. This is not to say that equity between men and women in top leadership roles is not a goal we should continue to pursue. Rather it is to understand more clearly and fully what exactly we are dealing with – gender differences not entirely amenable to social engineering.


Chang, E. (2023, February 23). ‘Momnesia’ is real, but it’s not what you think. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/parenting/2023/02/23/mommy-brain-symptoms-benefits/

Fleming, S. (2023, April 21). Ursula von der Leyen forged a bolder, stronger EU. Can she keep it? Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/d0bd82d1-8e7d-4379-9f59-630886c04293

Geiger, A.W., Livingston, G., & Bialik, K. (2019, May 18). 6 facts about U.S. moms. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2019/05/08/facts-about-u-s-mothers/

Sweden. (n.d.) Equal power and influence for women and men – that’s what Sweden is aiming for. https://sweden.se/life/equality/gender-equality

Barbara Kellerman

Dr. Barbara Kellerman was Founding Executive Director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School; the Kennedy’s School’s James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Leadership; and a member of the Harvard faculty for over twenty years. She is currently a Fellow at the Center. Kellerman has held professorships at numerous universities including George Washington and the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.  She received her Ph.D. in Political Science from Yale University and was the recipient of a Danforth Fellowship and three Fulbright fellowships. Kellerman was a cofounder of the International Leadership Association.

Kellerman is the author and editor of numerous books including: Bad Leadership; Followership; Leadership: Essential Selections (2010); The End of Leadership (2012); Hard Times: Leadership in America (2014), Professionalizing Leadership (2018), and (with Todd Pittinsky) Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy. She has appeared on media outlets such as CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, NPR, MSNBC, Reuters, and BBC, and has contributed articles and reviews to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and the Harvard Business Review.

She is a globally renowned speaker who has addressed audiences all over the world including in Berlin, Moscow, Melbourne, Sao Paolo, Jerusalem, Mumbai, Toronto, Kyoto, Beijing, Buenos Aires, Sydney, and Seoul. She received the Wilbur M. McFeeley Award from the National Management Association for her pioneering work on leadership and followership, as well as the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Leadership Association. Since 2015, she has been listed by Global Gurus as among the “World’s Top 30 Management Professionals,” and in 2023 she was ranked #10 on the list. 

Her most recent book — The Enablers: How Team Trump Flunked the Pandemic and Failed America — was published in 2021 by Cambridge University Press. Her next book, Leadership from Bad to Worse, will be published by Oxford University Press in early 2024. 

Kellerman regularly posts digital articles at https://barbarakellerman.com/articles/, which is where this blog was originally published. 

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