Gender & Leadership: Malala Yousafzai, a Young Woman Leader


Stereotypes, beliefs, prejudices and habits have made it impossible for women to hold leadership positions. However, some women have broken through and challenged themselves and society. Who are these remarkable strong women, and how did they find their way? How were they able to surpass the obstacles and overcome the challenges that were paralyzing them?

It is highly essential to understand and analyze variables that are relevant to effective leadership. Gender is an important variable that must be examined in order to understand its impact on leadership effectiveness. The topic of gender and leadership needs serious consideration and a thoughtful discussion because of twenty-first-century reality.

This paper includes the changing conceptions of leadership and the definition of gender, explores the gender stereotypes and examines gender differences in leadership, exposes some factors that have facilitated, impeded women’s leadership and the existing barriers to women’s leadership. It will also study the example of Malala Yousafzai as an influential young leader. This essay aims to re-examine the shabby belief that women are unsuitable for leadership and review the worn belief that a leader needs to be head of a nation or a state to make a change.

Different Changing Conceptions of Leadership:

Historically, leadership has been visualised mentally as “the man of the white horse”. Studying leadership has been perceived as the study of “great men”. It referred to the study of political leadership exercised by a privileged group of great men who defined power, authority and knowledge (Klenke, 1996). The emphasis was essentially on political leadership. This proclamation suggested that there are no legitimate leadership positions, functions, roles in different contexts such as social movements, community, or family, contexts during which women have historically exercised leadership. Many people consider that history is formed thanks to the leadership of great men. With few exceptions, women have had no place in history as leaders (Klenke, 1996). Recently, women have rewritten history as “herstory” to acknowledge that women, like men, need a sense of history to have their contributions recognised and valued. For the most part, history was partial, misinterpreted, and limited since questions concerning women had never been asked. History has produced some great women who are outnumbered by numerous great men. However, through the lenses of the courage, bravery, prestige, and lives of these men, much history and leadership are viewed. Moreover, the representation of historical women leaders like Catherine the Great of Russia, Elizabeth 1, and Queen of Sheba leaves us with the impression that women can be effective only if they are exceptional by men’s standards. It was until the 1980’s that the number of women leaders reached a significant mass and started to gain visibility.

Nevertheless, despite the significant number of great women who have exercised leadership in informal functions by being heads of extended families, mothers, warrior queens, their leadership was not formally noticed and recognised. The women’s rights movements and civil rights movements form the contextual forces in which leadership is played out. They had a significant impact on women, and their opportunities to assume leadership roles. The women’s rights movement, for instance, as a prototype of a social movement, was defined by a puzzling contradiction in the early days: the urgent need for leadership and direction. During this movement, women followed no structure or hierarchy to have participatory decision-making and shared responsibility. Over the last decades, women have entered traditionally male domains in leadership, including politics and business, in increasing numbers. Women have served as prime ministers of England (Margaret Thatcher), India (Indira Gandhi), Pakistan (Benazir Bhutto), and the Philippines (Corazon Aquino). Mary Robinson is regarded as the first woman president, who was elected in 1990. In northern Europe, women are starting to lead the way as presidents and prime ministers. Leadership means different things to different people. For some, leaders are heroes and heroines; for others, they are villains and demagogues. Leaders are dreams and champions such as Isabella of Spain and Napoleon, servants such as Mahatma Gandhi and mother Theresa, visionaries such as Martin Luther King and Joan of Arc, and revolutionaries such as Fidel Castro, Rosa Luxemburg. In initial Greek and Latin, the word leadership comes from the verb to act. In modern languages, the terms used for leaders do not seem to be equivalent. For instance, the meaning of the German “Fuhrer” is different from the French “le meneur”. When people are asked to define leadership, many definitions imply control, power, vision, goal achievement and motivation. However, traditionally most definition shave excluded the female half of the population. Leadership has been officially determined in terms of attributes, behaviours, influence processes, power, politics, authority, change, goal achievement, management, and transformation, among other concepts. It is considered as the art of motivating a group of people to achieve a common goal. The notion of leadership is not culturally gender-neutral, and several authors have seen the North American concept of leadership as a celebration of strong individualistic masculinity (Lipmann-Blumen, 1992).

Gender and Stereotypes:

While examining, analyzing, and evaluating female and male leaders, gender operates as the first of a series of prisms. Gender can be perceived as a more complex and meaningful way to understand individual differences. It is highly crucial to understand how gender contributes to self-perception and perception by others and that this understanding can optimize leadership effectiveness. Gender alludes to the historical, social, and cultural construction of biological sex. It is generally described” by default “because what we attribute to one gender encapsulates all the signs that a culture elaborates to account for biological differences between women and men (Klenke, 1996). Gender can be defined as a multidimensional construct that refers to different roles, responsibilities, limitations, and experiences of individuals based on their presenting sex and/or gender (Eklund et al., 2017). As a matter of fact, we are gendered as human beings from the day we are born. However, gender should not be perceived as a fixed and permanent property of individuals, but as part of an ongoing process by which women and men are constituted, often in paradoxical ways.

In the study of leadership, gender has been employed in ways other than a strictly categorical variable distinguishing women leaders from their male counterparts (Klenke, 1996). In fact, according to many people, leadership has been synonymous with masculinity, and we have only started to induce beyond that synonymy. Gender stereotypes describe stereotypical norms and beliefs about women and men’s attributes and define the manner in which men and women should “behave”. For instance, men are stereotyped with agentic traits such as rigidity, decisiveness, independence, rationality, confidence, and decisiveness. However, women are associated with communal characteristics like concern for others, affection, sensitivity, warmth, and helpfulness. These gender stereotypes portray women as sensitive, warm, emotional and caring, whereas men as cold, rational, authoritarian and even ruthless. These stereotypes have somehow contributed to the perception that women may be less competent and efficient than men in leadership positions, even though they can be, in fact, equally effective. In leadership functions that transcend managerial roles, gender stereotypes represent a significant boundary and a challenge for women because agentic tendencies often are valued. Therefore, in leadership positions, women are confronted with opposing pressures: as leaders, they should possess masculine characteristics and qualities, but as women, they should not be “too manly.” Correspondingly, women may earn more positive reactions if they involve in their repertoire behaviours that are more “feminine” (expressive, friendly, and participative), as long as these behaviours are perceived as appropriate for the leader’s position (Eagly et al., 2002).

Furthermore, the lack of female representation at the top of corporations, organizations, companies is known as the “glass ceiling” an invisible, yet impenetrable barrier of discrimination that keeps women from leadership positions (Klenke, 1996). The glass ceiling can be defined as an invisible, unofficial limit, which blocks and prevents someone, especially a woman, from achieving a major position in an organization. In addition to that, when an organization has many more men than women in influential positions, the culture attributes that favour to the dominant gender.

Malala Yousafzai, the Young Leader:

When thinking about a leader, the first leaders that come to our minds are people in positions of power: presidents, or prime ministers. Nonetheless, when it comes to who has the power to bring about change, Malala Yousafzai said you do not have to be a president or a manager, to create change. In reality, it does not matter if you are young or old; anyone can create and bring about change. Malala Yousafzai represents the survivor of a Taliban assassination attempt, an activist for women’s rights and education. She is considered a fighter and a reformer for justice and a leader regardless of her young age. She was able to remind us that leadership is not about titles, recognition, or corporate power. It is about the willingness to speak for yourself and others, that leadership is about making a change, taking risks, standing up for a noble cause and motivating people to achieve a common goal. She firmly believes in the magic that happens when you believe your talents, capacities and the power of your voice. She also admits that, through this magic, women will be empowered and ready to fight for their rights. She is indeed a leader with her courage, bravery and determination to change the world. She showed the world that leaders need to be audacious and that the audacious people fight for what is fair and just without limitations.

Nevertheless, before digging more in her leadership style, it is imperative to look at her story to understand the factors that contributed to making her a leader at a young age. Malala was born in a place that was always under the threat of the Taliban, and a patriarchal culture where girls and women were limited to giving birth, looking after children, cooking and taking care of men; without considering the social development of women concerning education and work. Malala grew up in Pakistan. Her father was a passionate education advocate who helped run a learning institution in the city. School and education played a significant role in Malala’s early life. Malala has a caring family, who supported her in following her will to pursue any education level that she desired, despite the cultural and environmental norms around her. The situation in the Swat Valley changed in 2007. The Taliban occupied the area and immediately became the prominent voice in northwestern Pakistan. In 2008, the Taliban had destroyed some four hundred schools. However, this incident never stopped Malala from speaking out for women’s rights, not just in Pakistan, her home country but across the globe. That is what pushed her to start a blog to denounce the atrocities and the horrors made by Taliban. In September 2008, Malala gave a talk titled “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education” in Peshwar, Pakistan. The attack from Taliban and their threats did not deter her. She was decidedly determined to tell her story and fight for girls and women’s rights.

Malala attended Khushal School established by her father. She became targeted by Taliban, at the age of nine, because of her activism and advocacy. Malala was shot by Taliban and survived the attack after being airlifted to Birmingham in Great Britain for care and rehabilitation. Taliban were weak in front of her bravery and determination to change and empower girls her age and women in general. She survived, continued to tell her story and established the Malala Fund with her father in 2014 to raise awareness. “I started speaking out when I was 11 years old, and I had no idea if my voice can have an impact or not, but soon I realized that people were listening to me and my voice was reaching people around the world”(Gibbs, 2018). Therefore, change is possible and do not limit yourself, do not stop yourself, just because you are young.

“Malala Yousafzai (Novais, 2019). Hence, Yousafzai became the youngest Nobel Laureate after she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. In addition to her significant work for the Malala Fund, the activist is an author and a United Nations Messenger of Peace. Malala pleaded at the United Nations on her 16th Birthday, announcing action for education accessibility. “I told myself, Malala, you have already faced death. This is your second life. Do not be afraid if you are afraid; you cannot move forward.” Malala Yousafzai (Gibbs,2018). Later that year, the activist published her first book, an autobiography entitled “I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban”. Yousafzai and her father co-founded the Malala Fund in 2014. This fund is an organization that empowers girls to accomplish their potential and become courageous, confident and strong leaders in their own countries, through education. Malala carried on to use her leader’s voice to advocate for women and girls’ rights. With more than 130 million girls dropping out of school, Malala continues to use her magic. She travels far and wide to fight poverty, wars, child marriage, inequality, and gender discrimination in education.


In fine, this paper has shown the different conceptions of leadership throughout history and the gender stereotypes, which constitute a crucial invisible boundary to women’s access to leadership positions. It has also exposed the story of a young leader which remarkably inspires me as a young person. Malala, the young girl who lived in a patriarchal society which is ruled by an extremist organization, transcends the gender stereotypes, the visible and the non-visible barriers, and strived against all odds to fight for her right and all girl’s right to education. She was not afraid of the threat to her life and was willing to pay the ultimate prize if necessary. At a very young age, Malala achieved what most people would never be able to achieve in their lifetime. As a leader, she has a vision, and she was ready to accomplish her goal. She became a one-person army against the Taliban, through non-violence, pacifism and advocacy for women’s rights to education and campaigned for others to follow her lead. Her peaceful style was pleasant for others to follow. Her inspirational story shows us that there is no obstacle and no barrier which can stop us from making a change and achieving what we firmly believe in.


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About the author:

Moroccan political science student at Mohamed 6 polytechnic university. Rim Affathe is highly interested in gender studies, postcolonial feminism, and diplomacy. She aspires to be a women’s rights advocate.  

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