Why Are So Few Women in Leadership Roles? We've Got Answers
It's an unpleasant fact, but women are much less likely to hold leadership positions than men, and they're still having trouble gaining ground. "Despite gains in every profession, women remain underrepresented at all levels of leadership," according to a new report from the American Association of University Women. "In Congress, on corporate boards, and in our nation’s colleges and universities, male leaders outnumber female leaders by considerable margins."
How considerable? According to the report, Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership, women make up just 19 percent of Congress and just 28 percent of corporate executives. Another study showed that less than 14 percent of nonprofit organizations had boards with at least 50 percent women last year.
"For Asian, black, and Hispanic women, the problem is even more acute," the AAUW report states. For example, women of color make up less than three percent of board directors at Fortune 500 companies, while Asian, black, and Hispanic women represent just 17 percent of workers in S&P 500 companies and fewer than four percent of executive officials and managers.
Why, then, with so many talented and qualified women ready and willing to fill leadership roles does a gender leadership gap even exist? The AAUW report offers a few explanations.
There's a pipeline problem
Whether it's at the entry level or on the way to the C-Suite, systemic barriers exist that keep women stuck in place or out of a career field entirely. We know pipeline problems are the real deal thanks to a separate study that showed women are unable to enter, stuck in the middle, or locked out of the top of the technology sector to healthcare, retail, and several other career fields. What's more, according to the AAUW, we know women are stymied at every professional level because "women earn the majority of university degrees … and more women are in the workforce today than ever before. There must be something inherent in the system that’s working against them."
Sex discrimination is still happening
According to the AAUW, "Some bias against women is subtle, but overt—and illegal—discrimination against women in the workplace remains an issue." The report shows that many companies still state a gender preference for select positions — in the 21st century! "This kind of illegal discrimination is not rare," the report states, with 30,000 cases of sex discrimination in the last five years alone resolving in favor of the person who filed the charge.
But women face sex discrimination outside of the corporate world, too. "In the political realm, rigid stereotypes about women and political leadership — often captured in biased media coverage of female candidates — can influence voters' perceptions of women candidates and discourage women from entering politics," the report states. Let's not forget how often questions about everything from Hillary Clinton's sexual orientation to her hairstyle choices have repeatedly surfaced.
And then, there's that whole work-life balance thing.
"Balancing work and family responsibilities is one of the most challenging obstacles for women seeking leadership positions," the AAUW report states. As the most-likely primary — or only — caregivers for their children, women often leave the workforce during their peak employment years. "They are more likely than men to work irregularly and spend time out of the workforce, and they are more likely to work part time," the report states.
What's more, women who would continue their careers after giving birth are often forced to quit their jobs because they aren't given paid parental leave. "When faced with the prospect of unpaid leave or no leave at all, many women who have children choose to leave the workforce," according to the AAUW. "Even when employers offer family-friendly policies, workers are reluctant to use them out of a concern that their work commitment will be questioned."
What can be done to level the leadership playing field for women? The problem won't require magic to fix, the AAUW assures us, but it will take a multi-step approach — one that includes everything from diversity training to employment practice reforms on college campuses, in corporations, and even in Congress.
Women themselves have a responsibility to climb any leadership ladder too. A separate study suggested that women must select their roles carefully — choosing positions that will lead to the C-Suite — and expand their career networks beyond other women to successful men. The pressure may still be on women to change a system set up against them, but we all know where the problems are — now we just have to fix them.