At a recent conference dealing with the impact of technology on society, I was on a panel titled Gender in the Gig Economy. The issue on hand was whether the gig economy was making it better or worse for women to find equal opportunity and success. As the only male member on a panel of five, I wondered if we were discussing the wrong issue. So, I started my opening remarks with a question: Was Google right in firing engineer James Damore when he wrote the now infamous memo saying women are inferior to men both in terms of leadership and technology? I’ve been asking this question in my seminars and programmes ever since the news broke out last year. While I personally have absolutely no doubt in my mind that the company was right in firing him, responses to my question beget a mixed response. In each room that I ask the question, there is a near-perfect 50:50 split in opinion, exactly as it was in this conference. Those supporting the firing say the argument is blasphemous, discriminatory and disrespectful. Those opposing say that he was merely expressing an opinion in a company that values freedom of speech. So, how can he be fired for simply speaking up?

The debate whether the gig economy is making gender-based discrimination worse or better is exactly the same as the Google dispute. The world (and research) seems evenly divided on the issue, but proponents of both sides of the argument are equally vociferous about defending their stand. The fact is, gender-based discrimination is a really big issue, and with or without the gig economy, it is not getting any smaller.

Instead of trying to re-establish this fact, I believe what we need to do is spend time learning about what women can do to succeed despite the odds.

Consider Edith Harbaugh, who co-founded LaunchDarkly—a software features and code management platform—that recently raised $21 million in venture capital funding. She struggled through several jobs as an engineer, then failed at a few dot-com start-ups. Before moving on to her next gig, she undertook a 5,300km cycling expedition over two months that changed her life. Harbaugh says most people give up a few days into the ride, but she learnt that the way to keep going was to repeatedly visualize what it would feel like if she finished, never losing sight of the bigger picture, and breaking down each day into small milestones. In her next venture, LaunchDarkly, she applied the same principles, and succeeded.

Harbaugh is just one of the many amazing women who succeeded. Her success can be attributed to the fact that she understands the word “leadership" differently.

To most people, leadership is about title, position, power or authority. The moment someone wins an election, we call them a leader. The moment someone is appointed CEO, we call them a leader. To others, leadership is about competencies and skills.

Real leaders reject such notions. To them, leadership is having “a burning desire to create a better future". It is not about authority or power, or about skills, it is a deep-in-the-gut desire to create something that doesn’t yet exist; or improve something that does. Real leaders realize that the key to succeeding is never giving up.

Most people give up in the face of resistance for a variety of reasons, but real leaders dig in because they have a reservoir of unlimited strength. I call this strength “Leadership Energy".

So, where does such limitless leadership energy come from? The short answer is: There are two sources, and both can be uncovered through deep honest reflection. The first is deep clarity about a set of personal values that one will never compromise, no matter what. The second is having a values-based purpose. Each time they feel like giving up, they close their eyes and visualize their purpose, just like Harbaugh.

So, I urge readers to worry less about the cause of the challenges, and focus on what they can do to challenge the status quo.

Yes, the challenges women face are real, and sadly, they are not going to go away anytime soon. A woman at the seminar asked, “But aren’t men the real problem when it comes to gender inequality?"

I completely agree but I also believe the best and the strongest women I’ve met don’t use all their energy on trying to fix men. They make themselves stronger by giving themselves the gift of values and purpose clarity. I’ve found that women make better leaders than men, but only if they truthfully uncover their leadership energy. Once the real and honest “why" of their leadership becomes clear, they lose fear. When fear is overcome, one doesn’t give up easily.

21st Century Leadership is a column that rewrites the rules of leadership for the all-digital open source era.

Rajeev Peshawaria is author of Open Source Leadership, and CEO, Iclif Leadership and Governance Centre, Malaysia.

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