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Fact Sheet

The Women’s Leadership Gap

Women’s Leadership by the Numbers

Using new data, this fact sheet update shows that women make up a majority of the U.S. population, but they lag substantially behind men when it comes to their representation in leadership positions.

Then-Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) speaks in Chicago, March 15, 2016. (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

For a more recent version of this information, see “The Women’s Leadership Gap” by Judith Warner, Nora Ellmann, and Diana Boesch.

This fact sheet is an updated version of “The Women’s Leadership Gap,” published on August 4, 2015.

See also:Opening the Gates” by Judith Warner

Women make up a majority of the U.S. population

Women are 50.8 percent of the U.S. population.1

  • They earn almost 60 percent of undergraduate degrees and 60 percent of all master’s degrees.2
  • They earn 47 percent of all law degrees and 48 percent of all medical degrees.3
  • They earn 38 percent of MBAs and 48 percent of specialized master’s degrees.4
  • They account for 47 percent of the U.S. labor force5 and 49 percent of the college-educated workforce.6

And yet …

Although they hold almost 52 percent of all professional-level jobs,7 American women lag substantially behind men when it comes to their representation in leadership positions:

  • While they are 44 percent of the overall S&P 500 labor force and 36 percent of first- or mid-level officials and managers in those companies, they are only 25 percent of executive- and senior-level officials and managers, hold only 20 percent of board seats, and are only 6 percent of CEOs.8
  • At S&P 500 companies in the financial services industry, they make up 54 percent of the labor force but are only 29 percent of executive- and senior-level managers and 2 percent of CEOs.9
  • In the legal field, they are 45 percent of associates but only 22 percent of partners and 18 percent of equity partners.10
  • In medicine, they comprise 37 percent of all physicians and surgeons11 but only 16 percent of permanent medical school deans.12
  • In academia, they are only 31 percent of full professors and 27 percent of college presidents.13
  • They were only 6 percent of partners in venture capital firms in 2013—down from 10 percent in 1999.14
  • In 2014, women were just 20 percent of executives, senior officers, and management in U.S. high-tech industries.15 As recently as 2016, 43 percent of the 150 highest-earning public companies in Silicon Valley had no female executive officers at all.16

Furthermore …

Women’s on-screen image is still created, overwhelmingly, by men:

  • Women accounted for just 17 percent of all the directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors who worked on the top-grossing 250 domestic films of 2016.17
  • Women were just 26 percent of all off-screen talent on broadcast networks, cable, and streaming programs during the 2015-16 season.18
  • However, when there are more women behind the camera or at the editor’s desk, the representation of women onscreen is better: Films written or directed by women consistently feature a higher percentage of female characters with speaking roles.19

A stalled revolution

The last decades of the 20th century brought considerable progress in women’s professional advancement in the United States. The gender wage gap narrowed, sex segregation in most professions greatly declined, and the percentage of women climbing the management ranks steadily rose. Yet, the progress has been uneven and is slowing—there are significant racial and ethnic differences in terms of women’s success in moving into the top-level jobs, and overall, women continue to fall far short of matching the success of their male counterparts in breaking into the top jobs.

Although the rapid rate of change of the 1970s and 1980s began to slow in the 1990s and 2000s, as the narrowing of the gender wage gap stalled and the percentage of women in management jobs stagnated,20 a notable increase in women’s representation in very top positions did continue:

  • In 1980, there were no women in the top executive ranks of the Fortune 100; by 2001, 11 percent of those corporate leaders were women.21
  • Women’s share of board seats in S&P 1500 companies increased 7.2 percentage points, or 94 percent, from 1997 to 2009, and their share of top executive positions increased 2.8 percentage points, or 86 percent. The share of companies with female CEOs increased more than sixfold.22

In recent years, however, the percentage of women in top management positions and on corporate boards has stalled:23

  • As recently as 2011, women’s presence in top management positions in S&P 1500 companies was less than 9 percent.24
  • As of 2016, women hold just 18 percent of S&P 1500 board seats.25
  • They are just 25 percent of executive and senior officials and managers, 9.5 percent of top earners, and 6 percent of CEOs in S&P 500 companies.26

The numbers have become even more dire for women of color, with very few moving into these top-level opportunities and a number of very high-impact departures in recent years.

Women of color face an even wider gap

The representation of women of color in corporate leadership roles is worse still. Women of color were 38 percent of the nation’s female population and 20 percent of the entire U.S. population in 2015.27 In 2015, they made up 35 percent of the female labor force, 16 percent of the total labor force,28 and 16.5 percent of workers in S&P 500 companies.29

And yet …

  • Women of color were only 3.9 percent of executive- or senior-level officials and managers and 0.4 percent of CEOs in those companies in 2015.30
  • In 2017, after the departure of Ursula Burns as CEO of Xerox Corp., there were no African American women heading Fortune 500 companies.31
  • As recently as 2013, more than two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies had no women of color as board directors at all.32

How does the United States measure up to other countries?

Very unevenly.

The United States ranks first in women’s educational attainment on the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Index of 144 countries. But it ranks 26th in women’s economic participation and opportunity and 73rd in women’s political empowerment.33

In fact, in the public sector—and in the percentage of female legislators in particular—the United States lags far behind many countries:

  • The world average for the share of women in the lower houses of national parliaments is 23.4 percent—slightly above the 19.3 percent in the U.S. House of Representatives.34
  • At the current rate of change, it will take until 2117 for women to reach parity with men in the U.S. Congress.35

U.S. women in politics: Much promise, less change

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the percentage of women running for office increased steadily, culminating in the so-called Year of the Woman in 1992, when the number of women in the U.S. Senate suddenly doubled—from two to four—and the number of women in Congress increased from 28 to 47.36

In more recent election cycles, however, the percentage of female candidates has essentially plateaued.37 In the decade leading up to 2012, the number of women elected to Congress remained basically flat, and the number of women in state legislatures actually decreased.38

2012 was considered a watershed election year for women in American politics. A series of historic wins put an end to all-male state legislatures;39 New Hampshire sent an all-female delegation to Congress;40 and the number of women of color in the U.S. House of Representatives hit a record high of 28.41 In the 2014 midterm elections, the number of women in Congress finally reached triple digits: 104.42

While the total number of seats women hold in the current Congress remained unchanged from 2014—women lost one seat in the House while gaining one in the Senate—2016 brought major breakthroughs for women of color: 43

  • Nine new women of color were elected to Congress, bringing the total number of women of color in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate to 38—the highest level in U.S. history.44
  • Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) became the first Latina member of the U.S. Senate and the first female senator from Nevada.45
  • Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) became the first Indian American U.S. senator and the second-ever African American female senator.46
  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), the first military veteran elected to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat, became the first Thai American and second Asian American woman senator.47
  • Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-FL) became the first Vietnamese American woman elected to Congress.
  • Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) became the first Indian American woman elected to the House of Representatives.48
  • Minneapolis State Rep. Ilhan Omar (D) became the first Somali American Muslim woman legislator in U.S. history.49

In 2016, women also suffered multiple setbacks, most notably the defeat of Hillary Clinton, the first female presidential nominee from a major party. Currently:

  • Women hold only 24.9 percent of seats in state legislatures.50
  • They are only 10 percent of governors51 and only 20 percent of the mayors of the 100 largest American cities.52
  • Women of color represent only 7.1 percent of the total members of Congress.53
  • Women of color make up 2 percent of governors and 5.9 percent of state legislators.54

And yet, the 2016 election cycle may have ushered in a new wave of women running for office. As of early 2017, EMILY’s List—an organization that recruits and trains pro-choice Democratic women—reported that they had heard from more than 11,000 women across all 50 states who are interested in running for office. During the 2016 cycle, this number was about 900.55

In sum

Women have outnumbered men on college campuses since 1988.56 They have earned at least one-third of law degrees since 198057 and accounted for fully one-third of medical school students by 1990.58 Yet they have not moved up to positions of prominence and power in America at anywhere near the rate that should have followed.

In a broad range of fields, their presence in top leadership positions—as equity law partners, medical school deans, and corporate executive officers—remains stuck at a mere 10 percent to 20 percent. As recently as 2012, their “share of voice”—the average proportion of their representation on op-ed pages and corporate boards; as TV pundits, Wikipedia contributors, Hollywood writers, producers, and directors; and as members of Congress—was just 18 percent.59

In fact, it has been estimated that, at the current rate of change, it will take until 2085 for women to reach parity with men in key leadership roles in the United States.60

Judith Warner is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Danielle Corley is a Research Associate for Women’s Economic Policy at the Center.


  1. Bureau of the Census, “QuickFacts: United States,” available at https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045216/00 (last accessed March 2017).
  2. National Center for Education Statistics, “Table 318.30. Bachelor’s, master’s, and doctor’s degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions, by sex of student and discipline,” available at https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d16/tables/dt16_318.30.asp (last accessed March 2017).
  3. National Center for Education Statistics, “Table 324.50. Degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions in selected professional fields, by sex of student, control of institution, and field of study: Selected years, 1985-86 through 2013-14,” available at https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d15/tables/dt15_324.50.asp?current=yes (last accessed March 2017).
  4. The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, “2016 Business School Data Guide” (2016), available at http://www.aacsb.edu/-/media/aacsb/publications/data-trends-booklet/2016.ashx.
  5. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment status of civilian noninstitutional population by age, sex, and race,” available at http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat03.htm (last accessed March 2017).
  6. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment status of the civilian noninstitutional population 25 years and over by educational attainment, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity,” available at http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat07.htm (last accessed March 2017).
  7. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity,” available at http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.htm (last accessed March 2017).
  8. Catalyst, “Women in S&P 500 Companies,” available at http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-sp-500-companies (last accessed March 2017).
  9. Catalyst, “Women in S&P 500 Finance,” available at http://catalyst.org/knowledge/women-sp-500-finance (last accessed March 2017).
  10. American Bar Association, “A Current Glance at Women in the Law” (2017), available at http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/marketing/women/current_glance_statistics_january2017.authcheckdam.pdf.
  11. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Women in the labor force: a databook (U.S. Department of Labor, 2015), available at https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/womens-databook/archive/women-in-the-labor-force-a-databook-2015.pdf.
  12. Association of American Medical Colleges, “Table 10A: 2013 Benchmarking – Permanent Decanal Positions” (2012), available at https://www.aamc.org/download/411898/data/2014_table10a.pdf.
  13. Heather L. Johnson, “Pipelines, Pathways, and Institutional Leadership: An Update on the Status of Women in Higher Education” (Washington: American Council on Education; Center for Policy Research and Strategy, 2016), available at http://www.acenet.edu/news-room/Documents/Higher-Ed-Spotlight-Pipelines-Pathways-and-Institutional-Leadership-Status-of-Women.pdf.
  14. Candida Brush and others, “Women Entrepreneurs 2014: Bridging the Gender Gap in Venture Capital” (Babson Park, MA: Babson College, 2014), available at http://www.babson.edu/Academics/centers/blank-center/global-research/diana/Documents/diana-project-executive-summary-2014.pdf. A 2016 study by TechCrunch, using different methodology, found that women were 7 percent of full investing partners in the top 100 venture capital firms globally. For more information, see Gené Teare and Ned Desmond, “The first comprehensive study on women in venture capital and their impact on female founders,” TechCrunch, April 19, 2016, available at https://techcrunch.com/2016/04/19/the-first-comprehensive-study-on-women-in-venture-capital/.
  15. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Diversity in High Tech,” available at https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/statistics/reports/hightech/ (last accessed March 2017).
  16. David A. Bell and Kristine M. Di Bacco, “Gender Diversity in Silicon Valley: A Comparison of Silicon Valley Public Companies and Large Public Companies” (Mountain View, CA: Fenwick & West LLP, 2016), available at https://www.fenwick.com/FenwickDocuments/Gender_Diversity_2016.pdf.
  17. Martha M. Lauzen, “The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 100, 250, and 500 Films of 2016” (San Diego: Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, 2017), available at http://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/2016_Celluloid_Ceiling_Report.pdf.
  18. Martha M. Lauzen, “Boxed In: Employment of Behind-the-Scenes and On-Screen Women in 2015-16 Prime-time Television” (San Diego: Center for the Study of Women In Television and Film, 2016), available at http://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/files/2015-16-Boxed-In-Report.pdf.
  19. Best Picture Oscar-nominated films with one or more female screenwriters consistently have a higher percentage of female characters than films written solely by men, according to the findings of Stacy Smith, a professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. In 2008 alone, she discovered films directed by women featured female actors in 41.2 percent of speaking roles, compared with 26.8 percent in films directed by men. For more information, see University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, “Academy Award-nominated movies lack females, racial diversity,” February 22, 2012, available at http://www.annenberg.usc.edu/News and Events/News/120222SmithGender.aspx.
  20. In 2010, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that the share of women in management jobs in the 13 industry sectors that account for almost all of the nation’s workforce had increased only 1 percentage point from 39 percent in 2000 to 40 percent in 2007. In that period of time, female managers went from earning 79 cents to a male manager’s dollar to 81 cents to the dollar. For more information, see Andrew Sherrill, “Women in Leadership: Female Managers’ Representation, Characteristics, and Pay,” Testimony before the Joint Economic Committee, September 28, 2010, available at http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-10-1064T.
  21. Committee for Economic Development, “Fulfilling the Promise: How More Women on Corporate Boards Would Make America and American Companies More Competitive” (2012), available at http://www.fwa.org/pdf/CED_WomenAdvancementonCorporateBoards.pdf.
  22. David A. Matsa and Amalia R. Miller, “Chipping Away at the Glass Ceiling: Gender Spillovers in Corporate Leadership,” American Economic Review 101 (3) (2011): 635–639.
  23. Committee for Economic Development, “Fulfilling the Promise.”
  24. Cristian L. Dezso, David Gaddis Ross, and Jose Uribe, “Why Are There So Few Women Top Managers? A Large-Sample Empirical Study of Female Participation in Top Management.” Working Paper (University of Maryland and Columbia Business School, 2013), available at http://business.gwu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/SMPP_Seminars_WomeninTMT.pdf.
  25. Jon Lukomnik, “Board Refreshment Trends at S&P 1500 Firms,” Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation, February 9, 2017, available at https://corpgov.law.harvard.edu/2017/02/09/board-refreshment-trends-at-sp-1500-firms/.
  26. Catalyst, “Women in S&P 500 Companies,” March 1, 2017, available at http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-sp-500-companies.
  27. Bureau of the Census, “Annual Estimates of the Resident Population by Sex, Age, Race, and Hispanic Origin for the United States and States: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2015,” available at https://factfinder.census.gov/bkmk/table/1.0/en/PEP/2015/PEPASR6H/0100000US (last accessed April 2017). For these calculations, “women of color” are all women not noted by the Census Bureau as “white alone, non-Hispanic.” By subtracting the number of women who identify as only white and not Hispanic or Latino (100,390,857) from the total number of women (163,189,523), the estimated number of women of color in 2015 was found to be 62,798,666. Women of color’s shares of the U.S. population and of the female population were calculated using this number.
  28. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Women in the labor force: a databook” (2017), available at https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/womens-databook/2016/pdf/home.pdf.
  29. Catalyst, “Women in S&P 500 Companies by Race/Ethnicity,” available at http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-sp-500-companies-raceethnicity (last accessed April 2017).
  30. Ibid.
  31. Valentina Zarya, “Why There Are No Black Women Running Fortune 500 Companies,” Fortune, January 16, 2017, available at http://fortune.com/2017/01/16/black-women-fortune-500/.
  32. Catalyst, “2013 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Women Board of Directors” (2013), available at http://www.catalyst.org/system/files/2013_catalyst_census_fortune_500_women_board_director.pdf.
  33. The United States has fallen sharply from its 2014 fourth-place ranking in women’s economic participation and opportunity, a dramatic drop due in large part to a new methodology used in computing the gender gap in estimated earned income, combined with the long-term stagnation of female labor force participation and the lack of progress in leadership roles across economic sectors. World Economic Forum, “The Global Gender Gap Report” (2016), available at http://www3.weforum.org/docs/GGGR16/WEF_Global_Gender_Gap_Report_2016.pdf.
  34. Inter-Parliamentary Union, “Women in National Parliaments: World Classification,” available at http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm (last accessed April 2017); Inter-Parliamentary Union, “Women in National Parliaments: World Average,” available at http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/world.htm (last accessed April 2017).
  35. Cynthia Hess and others, “The Status of Women in the States: 2015” (Washington: Institute for Women’s Policy Research: 2015), available at https://iwpr.org/wp-content/uploads/wpallimport/files/iwpr-export/publications/R400-FINAL%208.25.2015.pdf.
  36. Karen Tumulty, “Twenty years on, ‘Year of the Woman’ fades,” The Washington Post, March 24, 2012, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/twenty-years-on-year-of-the-woman-fades/2012/03/21/gIQA41UUYS_story.html.
  37. Jennifer Lawless and Richard L. Fox, “Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in U.S. Politics” (Washington: American University, 2012), available at http://www.american.edu/spa/wpi/upload/2012-Men-Rule-Report-web.pdf.
  38. Luisita Lopez Torregrosa, “Women Take Their Case to the Ballot,” The New York Times, October 16, 2012, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/17/us/17iht-letter17.html.
  39. Tali Mendelberg and Christopher F. Karpowitz, “More Women, but Not Nearly Enough,” The New York Times, November 8, 2012, available at http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/08/more-women-but-not-nearly-enough/?_r=0.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Center for American Women and Politics, “Record Number of Women Will Serve in Congress; New Hampshire Elects Women to All Top Posts,” Press release, November 7, 2012, available at http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/sites/default/files/resources/pressrelease_11-07-12.pdf.
  42. Center for American Women and Politics, “2014: Not a Landmark Year for Women, Despite Some Notable Firsts,” Press release, November 5, 2014, available at http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/sites/default/files/resources/pressrelease_11-05-14-electionresults.pdf.
  43. Center for American Women and Politics, “No Breakthrough at Top of Ticket, But Women of Color Gain in Congress,” Press release, November 9, 2016, available at http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/sites/default/files/resources/press-release-post-election-2016.pdf.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Lindsay Gibbs, “Meet the first Latina senator in U.S. history and other women of color who broke barriers last night,” ThinkProgress, November 9, 2016, available at https://thinkprogress.org/meet-the-first-latina-senator-in-u-s-eec9832b509b.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Ibid.
  48. Ibid.
  49. Ibid.
  50. Center for American Women and Politics, “Women in State Legislatures 2017,” available at http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/women-state-legislature-2017 (last accessed April 2017).
  51. Center for American Women and Politics, “Women in Elective Office 2017,” available at http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/women-elective-office-2017 (last accessed April 2017).
  52. Ibid.
  53. Center for American Women and Politics, “Women of Color in Elective Office 2017,” available at http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/women-color-elective-office-2017 (last accessed March 2017).
  54. Ibid.
  55. Ed O’Keefe and Mike DeBonis, “Democrats partner with political newcomers aiming to create anti-Trump wave in 2018 midterms,” The Washington Post, April 21, 2017, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/democrats-partner-with-political-newcomers-hoping-to-create-anti-trump-wave-in-2018-midterms/2017/04/21/91514ec8-2502-11e7-bb9d-8cd6118e1409_story.html?tid=ss_tw&utm_term=.4266d100ac9c.
  56. University of Pennsylvania, “To Close the Gender Gap, What Needs to Change — Women or the System?”, May 27, 2013, available at http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=3219.
  57. Susan Ehrlich Martin and Nancy Jurik, “Women Entering the Legal Profession: Change and Resistance.” In Susan Ehrlich Martin and Nancy Jurik, eds., Doing Justice, Doing Gender (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2007), available at http://www.sagepub.com/upm-data/12634_Chapter5.pdf.
  58. Feminist Majority Foundation, “Empowering Women in Medicine,” available at http://www.feminist.org/research/medicine/ewm_toc.html (last accessed July 2015).
  59. The OpEd Project, “Who Narrates the World? The OpEd Project Byline Report” (2012), available at http://theopedproject.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=817&Itemid=149.
  60. Estimate refers to government, business, entrepreneurship, and nonprofits. See Diana Mitsu Klos, “The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2013” (New York: Women’s Media Center, 2013), available at http://wmc.3cdn.net/51113ed5df3e0d0b79_zzzm6go0b.pdf.

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Judith Warner

Senior Fellow

Danielle Corley

Research Associate, Women\'s Economic Policy