In 1987, Congress declared March as National Women’s History Month. This push for women’s recognition was championed by President Jimmy Carter, who urged the nation to designate March 2-8, 1980, as National Women’s History Week.
“From the first settlers who came to our shores, from the first American Indian families who befriended them, men and women have worked together to build this nation,” Carter said, 38 years ago. “Too often the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed. But the achievements, leadership, courage, strength and love of the women who built America was as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well.”
Nearly four decades later, the playing field remains largely uneven when it comes to gender equality. A recent NPR report stated that fewer than one in five members of Congress are women and at Fortune 500 companies, fewer than one in 20 CEOs are women. That’s 0.05 percent. Further, only six women are currently serving as governors of U.S. states. Those numbers are in line with my own research for one of my latest stories: “Women in Leadership: Surmounting Barriers and Bias.”
As analysts discuss in my story and in many other reports and research, it’s not easy for women to become leaders, and once they achieve a role in leadership, fulfilling that role is no small task. In addition to the challenges inherent in a position of leadership, women face certain structural barriers, stereotypes and biases.
If a woman upholds the typical female stereotype — smiley, timid and friendly — she isn’t seen as a leader. If she upholds the stereotype of a leader — strong, firm and tough — she is seen as unlikeable. What is she supposed to do? That’s where I believe learning leaders can help.
I take issue with the argument that a woman’s success is determined solely by active ownership of her career. That does not explain the enormous disparity between men and women in leadership roles, among other gender disparities. The historical dominance of patriarchal societies has systematically oppressed women for centuries, and justifying that with an “if you want it, you have to go for it” philosophy isn’t productive.
Take the popular “Lean In” movement, for example. The message of the movement suggests that success relies on individual initiative. But by suggesting that successful women got to where they are by “leaning in,” doesn’t that imply that women who have not achieved great success only have themselves to blame? There needs to be a great deal more focus on challenging the structural barriers and bias at the root of the disparities.
Organizational leaders should push for polices and company cultures that help advance equality. Paid family leave, child care offerings and equal pay would be a good start. Leadership should hold gender diversity as a priority and share gender pay-gap goals and ambitions throughout the organization.
Women’s progress in the workplace has been slow. Recent data from LinkedIn found that over the past 10 years, in 12 industries studied, the proportion of female leaders in the workforce has increased by an average of about 2 percentage points. And the 2017 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report found that gender parity is still more than 200 years away.
Although slow, some progress has been made. LinkedIn’s International Women’s Day report found that in the last four decades, more women are entering STEM fields than any other roles. Women in test development engineer roles had the largest increase, by 243 percent. Parity in architecture has also improved. While women constituted less than 25 percent of architects 40 years ago, it’s now close to 50-50. Women physicists have also increased 116 percent in the past 40 years.
As for leadership, the software and IT services industry has had a 27 percent increase in in female leadership hires, and the manufacturing, entertainment and public safety industries all saw increases is female leaders by more than 20 percent during the past 40 years.
Outside of business, there is a record number of female candidates running in the 2018 midterm elections. According to another NPR report, 431 women are likely running for the House of Representatives. Two years ago, only 212 were running. In addition, 50 women are likely running for Senate compared with half that number in 2016.
While these numbers are encouraging, there is still much to be done in the pursuit of gender equality, both in the workplace and society at large. And not that we need a reason to promote equality beyond ethics and fairness, but more women in leadership roles has been proven to benefit the bottom line. A 2012 Credit Suisse study found that companies with at least one woman on their board had a higher return on investment than companies with no female board members. Further, a 2016 American Association of University Women report found that between 1984 and 2004, women in Congress secured about 9 percent more in federal funding for their districts than their male colleagues and introduced about twice as many bills.
As they say, with great power comes great responsibility. Every leader has an effect on creating an organization’s culture. Help make yours one that respects and empowers women and men equally. Instead of training women to exhibit specific attributes associated with the stereotypical leader, I suggest a strong focus on training to reduce implicit bias among employees and diversity training against stereotypes.