Marie Wilson blogs on the Washington Post.
Marie C. Wilson is founder and president of The White House Project, co-creator of Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work ® Day and author of Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World.
In spite of Sarah Palin's prominence as best-selling author, Hillary Clinton's stature as Secretary of State, and 51% of the workforce now being female, we still face a crisis in women's leadership, according to The White House Project's just-published study, Benchmarking Women's Leadership.
The majority of Americans are comfortable with women leading in all sectors, but the reality is women hold only 18% of leadership positions across the 10 sectors we examined, including politics, business, law, sports, academia, journalism, religion, film/TV, nonprofit, and military.
In politics, for example, women have lost ground in the last decade as elected statewide executive officials and have made only incremental gains in Congress, where they currently comprise 17% of leadership. On a global scale, the U.S. ranks a dismal 71st out of 189 countries, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, in terms of women in legislatures, trailing behind nations such as Pakistan, Cuba, and United Arab Emirates.
At Fortune 500 companies, women hold only 15% of board seats, 16% of corporate officer positions, and a mere 3% of CEO positions, while women of color make up only 3% of board officers and 1.7% of corporate officer positions.
Even in sectors that have traditionally welcomed women - such as the nonprofit field - the numbers reflect the same disparity. Women comprise 75% of nonprofit employees, but hold only 26% of leadership positions. Women nonprofit CEO's make only 74% of what their male counterparts earn.
The list goes on: from sports and military to religion and journalism, women are underrepresented in the halls of power and underpaid when they get there. So why does this matter, particularly when our nation faces such trying economic times?
As our Benchmarks report illustrates, the rose-colored lens through which we have examined gender in the workforce clouds this grim reality: women - and particularly women of color -- are far from achieving parity in the arenas in which their participation and inclusion matters most: positions of leadership. And contrary to the popular talking points of today, the cultural ideal for women has not shifted to an all-encompassing and gender-neutral space, but remains firmly embedded in models of wifedom and motherhood. If anything, there is evidence that this cultural ideal is becoming further entrenched as the economy triggers anxieties about gender roles within both the public and private spheres.
I have been an advocate for women's issues for over 30 years. From the feminist and civil rights movements of the 1960s and 70s to today's "post-modern" struggles for equality, I have learned three important things: increasing numbers and changing culture are not mutually exclusive but mutually reinforcing vehicles; action must be taken from the top down and the bottom up; and instituting change cannot be limited to one sector, but must be tackled in every sphere.
When we set out to write The Benchmarks Report, we were determined not only to puncture the conventional wisdom that women are leading in record numbers, but to poll experts in each sector and determine what steps need to be taken to achieve a critical mass of women leaders across the board. Here are our recommendations for closing the leadership gap:
• Work to achieve a critical mass of women in leadership roles in every sector. A critical mass of one-third or more women in leadership positions is essential for implementing and maintaining the changes recommended in this report.
• Use financial resources strategically. In choosing which firms to hire or which non-profits to fund, look through a gender lens, considering the representation of women, and women of color, on the board and in top leadership.
• Amplify women's voices in the public arena. Prominently include women leaders in public forums and media so that they in particular--and women in general--are recognized as role models and considered for boards and other top-level positions.
• Collect and analyze the data. Surprisingly little information exists regarding the representation of women, and particularly women of color, in positions of leadership in individual organizations. Regular tracking and reviewing of the numbers - including the wage gap --- are essential for setting benchmarks and monitoring progress.
• Maintain accountability through setting targets. If you lead an organization, set specific goals for including women in leadership. Create a timeline to achieve targets and impose actual consequences for failure to meet these targets.
• Improve flexibility in workplace structures. For women and men alike, increased flexibility--and a recognition of the need for work-life balance--promotes career satisfaction and job retention.
Nothing has surprised me more in working to advance women's leadership than women's own measurement of personal success and the routes they must navigate to get there. As a young woman in a major financial firm told me, "They watch you here, and if you are perceived to be too involved with your children, you are not seen as a good candidate for leadership. If you are not involved enough, you are seen as a bad mother and not to be trusted." I was shocked to hear that an older woman pulled her aside after the meeting and remarked, "There are lots of children you can love; go find them. But if you want to succeed here, don't have children of your own."
Unfortunately, that naysayer seems to be right. Perhaps that's why so many executive women who have been on the leadership track have chosen to never marry or have children (52% and 61%, respectively, according to a UCLA-Korn Ferry study; for executive men, 5% and 3%, respectively). The sacrifices women must make to ascend the leadership ranks are still disproportionate to those made by their male peers. Numbers like this show that the lack of flexibility and childcare in the U.S. is not improving fast enough to allow the numbers of women stuck in the pipeline to really ascend. Instead, they remain in lower positions or opt-out completely from the workforce. In either case, the pool of ideas, talent, and experience among our decision makers shrinks.
Over the long term, I am optimistic about making change. Three polls conducted over five years as part of our Benchmarks report revealed that 90 percent of Americans are comfortable with women leading across the ten sectors profiled, from business and politics to film and journalism. As a 2008 Pew Research Center study found, the public thinks that women - even more than men - have what it takes to be leaders in today's world, scoring women higher than men in five of eight character traits they value highly in their leaders. The recent report from Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress, "A Woman's Nation," shows that, by and large, everyone believes that the inclusion of women at all levels, from government to business to our faith communities, is good for our economy and our country.
The acceleration in moving women into leadership will only occur if there is a thoughtful, creative, and committed approach to doing so. We must promote a national dialogue that sees women not as competitors for male jobs, but as allies in building a stronger economy and better institutions.
Most importantly, we need a cultural shift that values the unique leadership traits and diverse perspectives that both genders - men and women -- bring to the table, and a commitment to having them work side-by-side to tackle the challenges we collectively face. These are difficult times, indeed. Yet history has taught us that these are the moments which are ripe for greatness, if we dare to imagine and embrace a new way.