Revitalizing our commitment to gender equality

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Revitalizing our commitment to gender equality

Without recommended change, equal representation of men and women in leadership may not occur until 2085

by Alexandra Russell on Thursday, January 29, 2015 - 12:32am

With the visibility of female leaders such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, we might assume that society is progressing steadily toward gender equality.

In reality, it's the great granddaughters of today's college students who may be the first to live in a world of leaders who are actually representative of the population. At the current rate of progress, equal representation of men and women at the top will not occur until 2085, according to a report by Judith Warner, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Since the report was issued nearly one year ago, there has been an increase of media coverage focusing on women’s leadership, but the plan for real change is still a new frontier that needs continued research, awareness, and involvement.

The slow pace of change

According to the report, women represent 50.8 percent of the U.S. population, earn 60 percent of undergraduate and master’s degrees and hold almost 52 percent of all professional-level jobs. Nevertheless, women are not achieving equal representation in positions of higher leadership across numerous industries.

Despite earning 44 percent of master’s degrees in business and management, only 14.6 percent of executive officers, 8.1 percent of top earners and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. In information technology, women hold only 9 percent of management positions; and in the legal field, women are only 25 percent of nonequity partners and 15 percent of equity partners despite earning 47 percent of all law degrees.

The report shows that while there were many improvements in the representation of women in top leadership positions during the last decades of the 20th century, in recent years the percentage of women in top management positions and on corporate boards has stalled. There has been no visible change from year-to-year for women’s representation on Fortune 500 boards the past eight years, and women’s presence in top management positions remains below 9 percent today.

While the U.S. ranks number six in women’s economic participation and opportunity, according to the World Economic Forum, the percentage of female legislators falls far behind many countries.

If we see no changes in interest and initiative surrounding the issue of female leadership in politics, Warner’s report contends that it will take us more than 71 years to achieve what many nations — like Finland, Iceland and Norway, which had legislatures composed of 40-43 percent female legislators in 2012 — are already well on their way to achieving.

Why does gender parity matter to women, organizations, the nation?

Why does equal representation of men and women matter? The report highlights the fact that the under-representation of women in positions of leadership is not a “women’s problem,” but rather a social problem. It has a negative impact on every American. Warner writes that “fully integrating women into a nation’s economic life is essential for a society to flourish.”

Furthermore, she highlights what she calls the “striking collective failure” of the United States to achieve such an integration of women into our workforce.

Warner pinpoints three very important reasons in her report, why equal representation in the private and public sectors is imperative: it impacts all women, it affects the functioning and success of companies and organizations across the board, and it impacts the economic health of our entire country.

Whether they realize it or not, inequality in positions of leadership impacts all women by influencing their aspirations, career choices, and occupational fates.

For one thing, the lack of female role models in leadership positions makes women less likely to be recruited for and encouraged to pursue positions at the top. This is partly because women appear to others as less well-suited to these roles than men, precisely because women don’t conform as readily to pre-existing images of “successful leaders.”

Women themselves feel less qualified for these positions due to a dearth of female role models. As a result, they are less likely to apply for leadership positions, are less confident even if they do apply, and are more hesitant to take these roles even if they are earned.

The small numbers of women in positions of leadership doesn’t just affect individuals, and it doesn’t just affect women — it impacts the effectiveness of companies and organizations overall.

The small numbers of women in positions of leadership doesn’t just affect individuals, and it doesn’t just affect women — it impacts the effectiveness of companies and organizations overall. Companies such as Intel are investing heavily in diversity initiatives to bring new perspectives that can innovate their products. Intel's chief executive Brian Krzanich explains, "Without a workforce that more closely mirrors the population, we are missing opportunities, including not understanding and designing for our own customers.”

Finally, the under-representation of women in the workplace in the United States has a negative effect on the entire U.S. economy.

The current lag in female workforce totals is predicted to significantly impede the nation’s economic growth over next decade. Specifically, research suggests if women were more fully integrated into the workplace, including being given leadership roles at the same rate as men, the national GDP would increase by an estimated five percent, the equivalent of hundreds of billions of dollars.

Finding solutions in quotas, transparency and parental benefits

How can the current state of underrepresentation be remedied? Noting that many countries such as France  use quotas to achieve parity, which seems implausible in the United States, Warner looks to countries like Australia and China that have also successfully passed other types of legislation to support increasing gender equality.

Australia has recently instituted policies requiring all companies with more than 100 employees to report such details as the proportion of males and females at each management tier, the gender composition of governing boards, the relative pay of men and women in similar roles, details about flexible provisions, and more.

Less comprehensive but still impressive, China has instituted a guarantee that women working for public enterprises receive 98 days of paid maternity leave.

Warner looks to other countries with good reason. In 1990, the United States was ranked sixth out of the 22 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for female economic participation. Rather than outperforming our peers in the decades to follow, we have sunk farther behind, such that, by 2010, we were ranked almost last, at 17th place.

Politically, we are in an equally embarrassing situation, ranked 60th out of 136 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 global gender gap index.

A time for change

The report is a call to action, and a message of the urgency and importance of achieving greater equality.

Our progress toward achieving gender equality in the workplace and in politics has been shockingly stagnant. As Warner illustrates, it is time to change our attitudes and revise our policies toward equality in the workplace. If we don’t, we will suffer — as individuals and as a nation.

To accelerate change, Research Director Caroline Simard at the Clayman Institute’s Center for the Advancement of Women’s Leadership calls for more collaboration between researchers and organizations to empower, engage and educate both men and women to create inclusive workplaces. The Center recommends the formation of learning communities among organizations to enable comparison and benchmarking.  By getting more involved, organizations can push one another to make women’s leadership a priority, and continually raise the bar for what’s possible.

The Center for American Progress has also released a new report in December 2014 that shares how public policy can boost women’s leadership, they are working closely with the White House and the Department of Labor on policies that address childcare, paid family leave, workplace flexibility, and even tax breaks for families with two working parents. Clearly this message for change is resonating, in the State of the Union Address on January 20, 2015, President Barack Obama outlined his vision for another groundbreaking new policy, “Congress needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work. It's 2015. It's time."

For more information, view the full reports and Center for American Progress infographic:


Judith Warner
Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress

Judith Warner is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. She is also a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a columnist for She was a 2012–2013 recipient of a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism. Warner is best known for her New York Times bestseller, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, and her former New York Times column “Domestic Disturbances.”

Alexandra Russell
PhD Social Psychology at Stanford University

Alexandra Russell holds a PhD in social psychology at Stanford University and currently works at Medallia where she leads workshops on bias. Her research focuses on two lines of inquiry: how beliefs about the fluidity of societal gender roles underlie the ideals and expectations men and women have for themselves and others, and how perceptions of well-being impact important behaviors and outcomes relevant to mental health and wellness.