How Women Social Entrepreneurs Lead and Innovate

They see innovative solutions to problems that seem unsolvable, and they do not give up until they create vital social change. Leveraging insights from Ashoka Fellows, the largest network of social entrepreneurs in the world, we began to see that female social entrepreneurs have unique, intuitive ways of leading. These insights could be applicable for women and men across sectors to further equity and success.  

Women constitute more than 50% of the world’s population and are distinctively positioned to uplift families and communities. However, women continue to be disproportionately underrepresented in leadership positions and systematically face a lack of access to the social and capital resources that would allow them to maximize their success. The structural and social barriers begin in childhood and adolescence when girls and young women are typically less supported and empowered to lead social initiatives at home and school. The global poverty rates are highest among girls, and as they get older, the gender gap in poverty widens further. 

According to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2018, the world has closed 68% of its gender gap, as measured across four key pillars: economic opportunity; political empowerment; educational attainment; and health and survival. Despite pockets of progress toward narrowing this gap, however, glaring inequalities still exist. In politics, only 24% of Parliament members worldwide are women. In the workplace, 50% of women are part of the global labor force yet earn on average 24% less than men. In the United States, female-founded startups received just 2.2% of venture capital investment money in 2017.  

An analysis of the Ashoka Fellowship network—over 3,500 people in 92 countries—paints a different picture: 38% of Ashoka Fellows are women.These women are leaders of their own organizations and initiatives, which they launched based on systems-changing solutions they created in response to a pressing societal problem. This rate surpasses the level of representation and leadership in many fields. While many female social entrepreneurs experience gender-specific challenges—such as a lack of networks, funding, and recognition compared to their male peers—they overcome these challenges to create significant social impact.



When we started investigating the way that female social entrepreneurs lead and innovate, four clear themes emerged that made us take notice. Female social entrepreneurs: 

  1. Practice inclusive, collective leadership 

Typical leadership models use a top-down approach that often excludes women. Alternatively, many female social entrepreneurs use collective leadership—a shared process that considers the expertise of people at all levels to address a situation—to create a deeper impact. They believe that true, sustainable success is not possible without diverse perspectives and contributions, and:

  • Ensure that communities have decision-making power  
  • Create ways for people to take ownership and contribute toward a shared vision  
  • Don’t just serve youth, but trust youth to lead 
  1. Create new roles for girls and women to accelerate social impact

A common strategy for social entrepreneurs to spread impact is to create new roles for people to further advance a solution. The women in our study did this time and time again. Whether it’s giving women in Liberia the tools and confidence to solve their own community health problems or empowering women in India to participate in local governance, these social entrepreneurs spread innovations by creating pathways for women and girls to see themselves in new leadership roles that did not exist before. 

  1. Assert women’s life experiences, such as motherhood, as an asset for leadership and entrepreneurship 

Many women find that caregiving experiences, such as maternity leave, can have negative effects on women’s careers, lessening chances for promotions and advancement. In contrast, female social entrepreneurs show how their unique life experiences catalyze and fuel their success. For example, the skills needed to be an effective caregiver, such as empathy and selflessness, can also be useful for insightful leadership. The skills required to parent children, such as communication, creativity and critical thinking, are the same skills needed for robust innovation. 

  1. Include men in solutions to problems typically viewed as only affecting women—such as access to reproductive health—so that everyone sees the value of solving these problems together

Female social entrepreneurs dedicated to gender equity often flagged that they found deeper change to be hindered by not fully engaging men and women to work together to design solutions. To create effective, lasting change for women, strategies must empower everyone to understand why changes are needed and create concrete ways through which they can be a part of the solution. Many female social entrepreneurs in our research entrust men as allies in a context-specific way and encourage them to respect and support the change led by women. 

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