Blog Post / Jan. 13, 2020

Women in Leadership: Understanding the Web of Inclusion

Written by admin

Sally Helgesen published The Female Advantage in 1990, and it has become one of the best-known books on women in leadership in the 26 years since.  Helgesen’s Web of Influence was a systematic portrayal of how women bring a type of leadership that differs from traditional, masculine and military hierarchical systems of leadership. Women leaders demonstrate “collaborative, courageous, flexible, open, accessible relationships” with community members long before Helgesen’s style of leadership was published. In her dissertation, Diane Brown Davis, Ed.D., shows these traits used by a one-room school teacher in rural Idaho at the beginning of the 20th Century.  This is not about being touchy-feely.  It’s about recognizing that relationships matter if we want to foster innovation and achieve goals.


The core of Helgesen’s leadership theory is the idea of a web of inclusion, which originated from studying women-led organizations. Helgesen has studied this method – in which women excel – in multiple organizations. The web of inclusion is based less on power and position (like politics, for example) and more on the more feminine attributes of relational inclusions and connections. 

Helgesen developed the web in 5 case studies at major corporations: Intel, Beth Israel Hospital, The Miami Herald, Nickelodeon, and Anixter. These different companies furthered Helgesen’s understanding that a web increases an organization’s talent base, frees up resources, and undermines bureaucratic hierarchies. 

Hierarchical Leadership

Although a hierarchy has incredible value in many organizations, like the military, it often prohibits innovative progress. Helgesen shows us that traditional leadership based on positional hierarchy creates tense structures with limited diversity. 

Hierarchies permit regulation of communication and resources but prohibit fast and flexible innovation. A web-based, women-inclusive leadership structure, on the other hand, promotes the flow of communication and resources throughout the organization to swiftly interact with the marketplace and innovate to improve services and products. 

Women in Leadership

Inclusion of women in leadership is essential to moving from a tiered hierarchical business to a flat, web-based structure. The nature of the web of inclusion is such that involvement in an organization needs to be diverse in order to remain flexible and innovative. 

For organizations wanting to create accessible and proactive structures, leadership teams need to be diverse. Both genders from multiple cultures work together to form a powerful team that understands an organization’s mission and vision (traditionally masculine terms) and builds the culture necessary to build the vision and mission (traditionally feminine ideas). In order to create a great organizational web, this diversity should be evident at every level of the organization: from the entry-level receptionists and sales people to the C-suite team. 

Diversity of leadership establishes the nucleus of a web of inclusion. Rather than having a top-heavy structure, there is no top, only centers. People at the center of a web of inclusion change depending upon the activity being performed. For example, the CEO may be at the center of most activities, but if she goes on a volunteer trip to clean up a town, the center of that activity may be the grounds and maintenance crew. 

This diversity of relationship promotes structures that are easily shifted and uniquely suited for each situation the business faces. For example, a CEO might be a great business people who perhaps is less in tune with technology. With webs of inclusion, the CIO and other information-savvy individuals step into the center when creating strategic technological plans while the CEO and others step into the periphery. 

The Essential Nature of the Periphery

Finally, in webs of inclusion, the periphery is as important as the center. If you ever look at a perfectly-formed web and begin to cut strands one at a time, you will realize that the structural integrity of a great web is never based upon one strand. The cumulative effects of multiple strands provides the strength and structure necessary to support the weight of the web. In building your organization, this principle is essential. A great organization includes diverse people in all roles within the organization who are empowered to work their best so that no one individual becomes “the end” of the organization. For more information on leadership principles introduced by women thinking and leadership, please contact us today.