top of page

The Female Lead's 5 Key Themes

The Female Lead explores five key themes that emerged from The Female Lead interviews as hallmarks of successful females. Our Female Leads talked about the personal qualities, values and strategies that they believed were critical in helping them to build their careers and their lives. The five same themes recurred time and again through the 60 interviews:

1. Feed Your Passions Female Leads attested to the transformative power of deep and authentic passions and interests. The end destination may not always be clear when you start out, but committing time and energy to your passions is a strong beginning. 2. Stay Curious Female Leads were driven by curiosity about the world; they were hungry to expand their horizons and to learn and engage beyond their immediate sphere. 3. Dare to be Different Female Leads revealed the importance of learning to embrace the ways in which they differed from their peers. Standing out might feel uncomfortable, but it can be a brilliant enabler of success. 4. Ask for Help Female Leads gained strength from families, friends and mentors, building support networks throughout their lives. Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness, and women often break new ground through successful collaboration. 5. Find Strength in Setbacks Female Leads emphasised how the acceptance of setbacks was a critical part of achieving their goals. Each failure or obstacle became a learning experience which made them stronger and more focused.

Quotes From The Female Lead Book And Documentary Series

Feed Your Passions

o Karlie Kloss: “When you’re passionate about something, and you’re really fulfilled on a personal level too, it enables you to be more focused and enjoy every other aspect of your life.”

o Samantha Power: “My advice would be not to decide on some title and try to script your path toward it, but develop your interests, dig into them – go deep instead of wide.”

o Nell Merlino: “You need to be guided by yourself and that involves trying things. What this brings to mind is the importance of parents and teachers helping girls to focus on what they are good at. Girls need to look at the careers, businesses and opportunities that exist around the things that they enjoy doing.…Pay attention to how you feel and what turns you on intellectually.”

o Ava Duvernay: “When I graduated from college, I got into film publicity. I loved film so I wanted to work around it, but I never thought that I could be the film-maker. Then I found myself on many sets, engaging in long conversations with film-makers, and I started to believe that I could do it, too. And so I gave it a try. That was my film school – being around other film-makers, then just picking up a camera and going for it.”

o Katharine Viner: “I always wanted to do something with words and writing….but I didn’t join the dots until quite late. I won a competition run by The Guardian when I was 21. The prize was to edit the (women’s) page for a was like a lightbulb going on. I loved the immediacy, the research; I loved making it accessible and communicating it, the pace of the newsroom. I just found it all so pleasurable.”

o Ashima Shiraishi: “Sometimes I want to stop climbing because there is so much going on in my life and I just want to be like anyone else, but I always return to climbing because I just love it so much and, if I don’t do it, then it feels like I am losing something.”

o Lucy Bronze: “To succeed at sport, the first thing is that it has to be something you love. If you don’t have the love, you won’t have the passion or the motivation.”

o Mhairi Black: “I think it’s good to try things and, if you’re good at them, to keep going and see how far you get. I’ve always thought that, no matter what job I ended up doing, it would be working with people because that’s what I enjoy. Inequality of any kind is the thing that really drives me. I always look at who’s losing out and why. Everything that I am interested in, be it foreign affairs or welfare reforms or LBGT issues, boils down to the fact that there’s an injustice happening somewhere”.

o Jude Kelly: “My ambitions when I was young are the same as they are now. When I was six, I started making up shows and getting the neighbour’s children to take part. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”

Stay Curious

o Cori Bargmann: “Overwhelming curiosity is the driving force of my character; I want to understand everything – that’s why I am a scientist.”

o Meryl Streep: “It was my imagination that took me out of my circumstances and enabled me to understand the lives of other people in a way I found thrilling…I didn’t always want to be an actor. I thought I wanted to be a translator at the UN and help people understand each other. In a way that’s what I’m trying to do as an actress – to get deep into someone else’s life, to understand what made them feel the way they did and compelled them to move in one direction or the other….what interests me, and what interests the actors I admire most, is to understand something about yourself and other people.”

o Aowen Jin: “I find a lot of artists are inward-looking…I am more interested in exploring and experiencing other people’s lives, and by reflecting on them I can understand humanity better….Life is very one-dimensional if you just live your own life. My work lets me experience other people’s cultures so that I feel like I’m living lots of different lives.”

o Clarissa Ward: “I was in New York when 9/11 happened and that was it..I had always been interested in different cultures but from that moment I wanted to try to facilitate better communications. Reporting became a vocation…. what drives me…(is) I want to tell the geopolitical story, but I also want to make our viewers understand their fellow human beings.”

o Karlie Kloss: “Even after I finished high school, I never stopped learning….Part of travelling for me is about learning – seeing, tasting, experiencing, meeting people, hearing different languages.”

o Lynsey Addario: “Growing up…we had an open door policy. We met artists and people who lived on the margins of society and it taught me not to be judgemental.”

o Sheila Nevins: “I am most proud of allowing anonymous people’s voices to be heard, of making you care about a cause at dinner that you didn’t know about at breakfast…There is always something that hurts somebody somewhere that needs to be told, whether it’s cancer or depression or homelessness, or the freedom to have a certain kind of sexuality or the right to be gay. There is always something that someone is getting beaten up for.”

Dare To Be Different

o Jo Malone: “I am dyslexic. I never took exams and I never finished school but dyslexia has been my best friend. Dyslexics often think outside the box because they can’t do things in a conventional way. When I look at a business problem, I always think of the less obvious solution. I create a fragrance in the same way – always looking for the bit that’s different.”

o Tina Brown: “I was a rebel and I was expelled from three boarding schools. That kind of subversiveness is useful: you should always question everything and push boundaries.”

o Tavi Gevinson: “I was OK with challenging people, making people uncomfortable. I didn’t mind if people didn’t like my outfits, if people thought I looked weird.”

o Taryn Davis: “I was an awkward, introverted child and as a teen I had a fear of not being accepted or liked, because of not wearing the right sort of make-up or something like that. I was not the sort of person you’d think would start an organisation.”

o Brenda Berkman: “My mother couldn’t believe it when I became a firefighter. I’d spent two years in grad school studying history and three years at law school and I was working as an attorney. That’s what I gave up to do a job that required just a high-school diploma. At that time, women couldn’t even apply (to become firefighters). I lost friends who didn’t want to be involved with someone so controversial. But I also made friends. I didn’t become a firefighter to win a popularity contest. I did a job I loved for 25 years and I still mentor and advocate for women firefighters. I think I’ve been blessed.”

o Michaela DePrince: “I worried that my vitiligo would be a problem but my skin turned out to be an issue in a different way. A lot of people are still very traditional in their views and they want to see the same thing in the corps de ballet – white, skinny dancers. I have strengths as a dancer. I am muscular and I have strong legs. More importantly, I work very hard. My parents.. made me see that it is OK to be different and to stand out.” “Be a poppy in a field of daffodils”

o Rebecca Root: “I wanted to live as a girl as soon as I was aware of anatomy, aged about three or four. I would like to think that my teenage self would be very proud that by being strong in the face of enormous adversity and difficulty, I achieved my life goal to be the woman that I should have been. I am in a high-profile TV show and one of the few trans actors in the UK who is working at this level..maybe I can inspire and say to someone in a similar position, “You know, anything’s possible. Don’t give up hope, because if I can do it, anybody can.’ I’m not better than anybody else. I did it through sheer bloody-mindedness, because I refused to be beaten down or to give up.”

o Lucy Bronze: “I was the only girl who played football in my entire region – rural north Northumberland. I played with the boys, and I’d never seen another girl playing football, let alone played against another girl. At the time, you weren’t allowed to play in a mixed team once you turned 12, so the FA wanted to ban me from the boys’ team. My coach said to (my mum), “You need to make sure Lucy keeps playing because she’ll play for England”. I was 11 and he’d never said anything like that before.”

o Leymah Gbowee: “In 2002 we marched on Monrovia..and we stayed there praying for peace. Even though there were thousands of us and our protest was very visible, the men still weren’t taking much notice. When we started the sex strike, it was out of desperation…We wanted to get across the idea that women were doing something and there was a need to support became a huge story and that became an opportunity for us to talk about peace.”

Ask For Help

o Cori Bargmann: “the secret of my success in science is that I have very good taste in people. I’ve worked with really smart people at every stage of my career, starting with those who advised me when I was a student and going on to the people who work with me now.”

o Christine Lagarde: “Success…is also about teamwork. Helping others, being helped, operating with others on your team is critically (Don’t) just assume that you can succeed on your own. I would also say: reach out to other women, including more senior women who have succeeded, and ask them for advice, for support.”

o Sallie Krawcheck: “The number one thing is networking…For entrepreneurs, their network is a key determinant of success: for raising money, getting a board of advisors, for getting customers and clients, for hiring, for knowing what competitors are doing. Women in their 20s say to me that they don’t want to ‘cheat’, they want to do it on their own. That’s astonishing! Relationships are what drives everything.”

o Dr Deelan Dakhil Saeed: “My mother was always the biggest influence in my life. She sacrificed herself to make me the person I am now. She was understanding and encouraging, and supported me the whole way. But my courage comes from my people. I was taught courage by a five-year old child who had to walk for three days without food or water to survive..I never forget the people around me who believe in me, who never let me fight alone, who support me. When you don’t feel you are alone, it gives you more strength.”

o Franchesca Ramsey: “My mom is my biggest cheerleader. She always urged me to work really hard, to be professional and poised. I talk to her every single day.”

o Weili Dai: “I remember hearing my mom telling neighbours, “My daughter is very smart, she knows how to play basketball”. The fact that my mother thought I was smart because I could play a sport and not just because I was good at school work was a huge encouragement. I grew up feeling valued and had a ‘can do’ attitude.

o Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe: “I am committed to doing small things that can bring transformation in society, for as long as I am able…I am not alone in these ambitions, when I work, I have others around me who understand what I am trying to do and we work together.”

o Lena Dunham: “Who is the most important person in my life? It’s a tie between my mother, Laurie Simmons, and my creative partner, Jenni Konner. They are my muses and my co-conspirators and my loves. I’m also lucky enough to have an adorable and brilliant sister, a feminist father with a wicked sense of humour and a boyfriend whose support is almost dizzying.”

Find Strength In Setbacks

o Christine Lagarde: “Failure is OK. This is not necessarily accepted in all societies and in all civilisations. But success does not come easily, should not be taken for granted, it’s very much about hard work, resilience, determination.”

o Yvette Vega: “It’s OK to make mistakes – that’s key. Young people think everything has to be perfect, they have to excel, they can’t make a mistake – but if you fall down and scrape your knee, you put on a Band-Aid, get up and run faster!”

o Reshma Saujani: “We live in a society where boys are taught at a young age to play hard and get comfortable with rejection and failure, and girls are not. And so, as we get older, we don’t take leaps in our careers, we don’t negotiate our raises, we don’t start businesses because we’re worried that we’ll take someone’s money and it won’t work out and we don’t run for office – what if nobody votes for us?”

o Ava DuVernay “I just thought. “I’m just going to keep going until someone tells me to stop…I always try to keep moving and keep creating. It’s not hard to every single day do something that gets you closer to the things that you want to achieve…So often I hear people saying ‘How do I get started, how do I do this? You just start. It won’t be perfect and it’ll be messy and it’ll be hard, but you’re doing something and you’re on your way.”

o Tavi Gevinson: “ If you want to do something, just do it! You have all the time in the world, you can start 80 new lives if you want, you have to try things – and be open and excited about failure because it teaches you things.”

o Sallie Krawcheck: “Success and failure are viewed as end point, not a process. In fact, you might be a failure one day but you can still be a success the next. You can fail and succeed every day. If..I get fired from a job – which I have been – I won’t like it but it’s OK. I will wake up the next morning and I’ll do it all again – and approach it with a sense of joy”.

o Laurene Powell Jobs: “I have several statues of the Hindu God, Ganesh. Some are really tiny, some are larger. Ganesh is the remover of obstacles, among other things. If I feel obstacles are too complex and too complicated and too hard, I always have a Ganesh there, on my bedside table or on my desk at work, to remind me that all obstacles can be removed.”

o Clare Smyth: “I have always had a fear of failure but, at the same time, I think you have to put yourself out there to fail. Whenever I’ve gone into a kitchen, I have always wanted to be not just the best person at what I am doing, but the best person they’ve ever had doing it.”


bottom of page