The pipeline is filled with qualified women ready to move into top slots. Yet it isn't happening: Barriers, biases and an outdated workplace model present challenges to women eager to get ahead.
Recent federal, state and local elections brought a surge of women leaders into public office. But while that progress is getting widespread attention, the reality is that women still lag far behind men when it comes to leadership roles. They remain significantly under-represented at the highest rungs of almost every field: corporate, government, nonprofit, education, law, medicine, finance and banking, and the military. In 2020, there were only 36 women leading America’s biggest companies — that’s only about 7% of all Fortune 500 CEO’s.
The problem is not a lack of qualified potential leaders to fill the roles. Women make up more than half of the U.S. workforce and they receive the majority of university degrees at virtually every level. So while qualified women are certainly in the pipeline, there are barriers and biases that keep them from attaining the highest – and most highly-compensated – leadership roles.
Blatant sex discrimination remains an obstacle, as data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission show. But subtler problems — such as negative stereotypes about women in leadership and hostile and unwelcoming environment in the Boardroom or the C-suite — also keep women out of top spots. Unconscious or implicit bias can affect decisions about who moves into leadership roles.
Another factor: Balancing work and family responsibilities also presents challenges for women seeking leadership positions. Although gender roles are starting to shift, women are more likely than men to work irregularly, part-time or spend time out of the workforce because of caregiving responsibilities. What’s more, because women tend to earn less than men, they are more likely to be the one to cut back on work to stay home with children.
Recruiting women into leadership roles will take a conscious effort on the part of employers to train and mentor promising employees and to set measurable goals to ensure their advancement. Diversity training can help reduce unconscious biases and family-friendly policies can make it easier for employees, regardless of gender, to blend their work and home responsibilities. Federal laws such as the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act will also help women advance.
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