Women’s Leadership

What’s True, What’s False, and Why It Matters

There is a silver lining to exclusion: Women, long outsiders, have had no choice but to think, act, and lead in out-of-the-box ways. That is why they are now poised to change our institutions for the better.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

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We know that when women participate fully in their governments and economies, they and their families benefit, but so do their communities, their countries, and even the world as a whole.

–  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, September 24, 2012

Fully integrating women into a nation’s economic life is essential for a society to flourish. That is a message that our country, and other rich nations, have consistently sent to developing nations around the world.  And yet, here at home, we have somehow managed not to heed it.

Women have outnumbered men on college campuses since 1988. They hold almost 52 percent of all professional-level jobs, have earned at least a third of law degrees since 1980, and almost half since 2001. Women were fully a third of medical school students by 1990, and since 2002, have outnumbered men in earning undergraduate business degrees. And yet, women have not moved up to positions of prominence and power in America at anywhere near the rate that they should have based on their representation and early successes in higher education and in the entry-level workforce. In a broad range of fields, the presence of women in top leadership positions—as equity law partners, medical school deans, and corporate executive officers, for example—remains stuck at a mere 10 percent to 20 percent. Women’s “share of voice”—the average proportion of their representation on op-ed pages, as television pundits, on corporate boards, and in Congress—is just 15 percent. In fact, it is now estimated that, at the current rate of change, it will take until the year 2085 for women to reach parity with men in leadership roles in our country.

Today, more than four decades after the start of the second-wave women’s movement, American women still encounter considerable barriers to reaching their full potential. Some of these barriers are, at least in part, self-imposed: the “lean-out” phenomenon of affluent women opting to slow or stop their highly demanding careers greatly thins the ranks of women who could be leaders. Roughly a third of high-achieving women—those with graduate degrees or bachelor’s degrees with honors—currently leave their jobs to spend extended time at home, and 66 percent of high-achieving women at some point switch to career-derailing part-time, reduced-time, or flex-time work schedules.

Stereotypes and skewed perceptions remain powerful and still impede the advancement of women. The dearth of women in leadership roles—and in whole fields—creates the perception that women do not belong in those positions or professions. In the political world, this means that women are less likely than men to be recruited to run for elected office, are more likely to be discouraged from running, and are less likely to consider themselves “qualified” to run—even though women now raise as much money and are as successful as male candidates when they do run for public office.

Some of the barriers are cultural—a double bind of competing norms for leadership stature and female likeability, for example, has made it very difficult for women to display the confidence and assertiveness associated with strong leadership and still be viewed as “likable” by their colleagues and superiors. Furthermore, longstanding assumptions about the so-called “ideal worker,” who is all work, all the time, with no competing demands on the home front, have relegated employees with obvious caregiving responsibilities—disproportionately women—to second-class status. A vast increase in the working hours required of Americans over the past 30 years has made the notion of 24/7 employee availability not just a cultural ideal, but the new normal. With a 40-hour-a-week job now considered to be part time, many professional women find themselves marginalized when they set aside time for family life. And far too many low-income women find themselves forced to leave their jobs outright because they cannot find affordable child care, lack access to paid sick days, and lack the right to the sort of predictable schedule that might permit them to successfully integrate their work and family lives—a package of impediments that traps them on the “sticky floor” of permanent low-status employment.

Still other barriers, perhaps the most prickly and tenacious of them, are structural. A shortage of role models, for example, means that women—and women of color in particular—lack mentors, sponsors, and opportunities in male-heavy organizations to develop the sorts of social relationships out of which mentorship, sponsorship, board appointments, or simply promotions, naturally evolve.

This combination of cultural barriers and structural changes in how we work has served to marginalize women, pushing them down or out of the workplace in the very era in which they were expected to take flight. The net result: The United States, once a world leader in gender equality, now lags behind other similarly wealthy nations in women’s economic participation. In the two decades from 1990 to 2010, our country fell from having the sixth-highest rate of female labor-force participation among 22 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, countries to 17th on the list.

At the same time, after a few decades of progress at the end of the 20th century, women’s advancement in the leadership pipeline has stalled, both in the private and the public sectors. “Still No Progress After Years of No Progress” was how Catalyst, a nonprofit working to expand opportunities for women in business, headlined its findings from a 2013 survey of women in key leadership roles in U.S. Fortune 500 companies. Among other findings, the Catalyst study noted that women held only 16.9 percent of corporate board seats in 2012, “indicating no significant year-over-year uptick for the 8th straight year.” The absence of significant numbers of women in corporate boardrooms is mirrored in the hallways of government. When it comes to women’s political empowerment, the United States currently ranks 60th out of 136 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 global gender gap index.

Addressing the women’s leadership gap—all the ways that women are kept from reaching their full potential—has been a hot-button issue since the early 1990s. And yet, for all the ink spilled on popular books, most-read articles, and academic studies, all the hours devoted to launching human resource programs that aim to recruit and retain women, and all the money invested in researching the causes and cures, the net result has been a rather striking collective failure. There is a disconnect between the lofty rhetoric issuing forth from would-be women-friendly organizations and the results on the ground. “No business would tolerate a similar lack of achievement with respect to sales, revenues, earnings, or any of the other metrics commonly used to measure business success,” noted the authors of the 2012 report, “Fulfilling the Promise: How More Women on Corporate Boards Would Make America and American Companies more Competitive,” from the Center for Economic Development, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

Our national tolerance for the stall in the advancement of women is surprising, particularly given that, over the past two decades, a considerable body of research has emerged to lend incontrovertible proof to the idea that when women thrive, organizations thrive—and nations thrive too. From that research, there is now a consensual view that women’s leadership is not just a matter of fairness, but also has the potential to move companies, governments, and societies in new and better directions.

Judith Warner is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Judith Warner

Senior Fellow