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Why Aren’t There More Women in Leadership Roles?

Topics: Work Culture

We all know that there are fewer women at the top than men, but it’s still shocking to see the actual numbers. Only 22 of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and only three – Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo, Ursula Burns of Xerox, and Lisa Su of Advanced Micro Devices – are women of color. Women aren’t just underrepresented in business leadership roles, either; they also make up just 19 percent of the U.S. Congress and 26 percent of college presidents. Recently, the American Association of University Women released a report, Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership to examine why there are so few female leaders, and what we can do to close the gap.


(Photo Credit: Jeremie Cremer/Unsplash)

“This issue affects every American sector, every industry, and every worker. We know there’s no shortage of qualified and ambitious women who are ready to lead. What’s missing is opportunity,” said AAUW CEO Linda D. Hallman, CAE, in a press release. “What can we do about it? Too much existing literature on women’s leadership wrongly asks how to ‘fix’ women leaders. Our report turns the lens around to focus on what society can do and why it’s important to do it, while also providing a tool for us to look in the mirror and confront our own biases.”

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Benefits of Gender-Integrated Leadership

  • AAUW’s report cites research that found companies with at least one female board member showed a higher return on investment and improved corporate social responsibility than those with all-male boards.
  • Other studies show that gender diversity in management correlates with “positive performance outcomes.”
  • Leadership teams that are gender-balanced appear to be less susceptible to “groupthink.”

Of course, it’s not all about benefits to the company. AAUW’s report notes that reaching “gender parity in leadership is, first and perhaps most important, a matter of fairness. Leaders are powerful, so when women are excluded from top leadership, they are denied power to make a difference in the world. …Leadership also pays. In most organizations, the top leader is also the most highly compensated, and managers and supervisors tend to have higher salaries than workers who are not in leadership roles.”

PayScale’s report, Inside the Gender Pay Gap, shows that the pay gap grows larger, higher up the corporate ladder: the controlled gender pay gap, meaning a comparison between the salaries of male and female workers with like job titles, experience, and education, is 6.1 percent at the executive level. At the individual contributor level, the gap is 2.2 percent.

Barriers to Cross

What’s preventing women from achieving greater representation in leadership? AAUW’s research makes it clear that the problem is systemic, not personal – in other words, it’s not just that women don’t ask for what they deserve or don’t pursue opportunities. There are real barriers to success for ambitious women, including:

  • Bias and discrimination, both overt and unconscious. From the report: “Companies sometimes still unguardedly state a gender preference for some positions—such as a 2015 advertisement stating that a position ‘requires filling in the responsibilities of a receptionist, so female candidates are preferred’ (Crockett, 2015).This kind of illegal discrimination is not rare.” AAUW also notes that over 30,000 cases of sex discrimination have been settled or decided in favor of the plaintiff in the past five years. Countless other women are subjected to sexual harassment or hostile work environments and never make an official complaint.
  • Gender stereotypes. AAUW cites research showing that “gendered coverage of women presidential candidates often trivializes their candidacies.” Female leaders are often either dismissed or deemed “too masculine.” Further, employers might hold stereotypical ideas about women as nurturers, leading them to expect women to do caregiving work around the office for free, while overlooking them for “masculine” leadership roles.
  • Work-life balance. There’s a reason that “work-life balance” generally refers to working women, and rarely to working men. The prime reproductive years and the period of time in which most people build their careers overlap; women who wish to have families and succeed professionally face serious challenges, especially since – according to the American Time Use Survey – women still do more housework and childcare than men, and work fewer hours and have less leisure time.
  • Lack of effective networking opportunities. Networking activities that lead to career advancement are often stereotyped as masculine, as with golf, for example. “Women with substantial family responsibilities may have limited time for building professional networks or socializing with colleagues outside of work,” says AAUW.

Steps to Close the Gap

There’s much that employers can do to create an environment that supports female leadership including focusing on productivity instead of time in the office, offering flexible schedules, and creating evidence-based diversity programs. But if you’re not a decision-maker yet, there’s still a lot you can do to better your individual situation, including:

  • Learn how to ask for what you deserve. Women face barriers in salary negotiations that men don’t have, including the perception that women who ask for more are “pushy” or “aggressive.” But just because case is required when building your case doesn’t mean you should take what you’re given, without asking for more. PayScale’s Salary Negotiation Guide is a good place to start gathering your evidence and preparing your case.
  • Set goals. “Women need to shift from thinking, ‘I’m not ready to do that’ to thinking ‘I want to do that – and I’ll learn by doing it,” writes Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In. Think about where you want to be in the future, and start making plans to get there.
  • Address your own biases. Unconscious bias is dangerous precisely because we don’t know we have it. AAUW provides a gender and leadership implicit association test on their site, which you can use as a self-assessment tool.

Get a free copy of AAUW’s report, Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership, at their website.

Tell Us What You Think

What other barriers do you think stand in females leaders’ way? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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