Why More Women Aren’t in Leadership Positions

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It’s just over two years shy of the centennial of women’s suffrage, but the United States has little to celebrate. Women’s rights in this country lag behind other developed nations; in fact, the U.S. is one of only seven members of the United Nations who has failed to ratify The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, alongside Sudan, Somalia, and Iran. Compared to the rest of the world, America ranks 65th in wage parity, 72nd in female representation in national parliaments, and 45th for overall equality – which is a dramatic fall of 25 spaces in two years.

Yet, one of the most baffling deficits in America’s gender equality is the lack of female corporate leaders. In a study of 45 countries, the U.S. placed 37th – in the bottom 10 percent – for women in senior management positions. How can this be, and what can employers and employees do to change it?

Why Women Are Left Out

For centuries, debates have raged regarding why women aren’t in leadership positions. Originally, the consensus was divine punishment or God-ordained inferiority. Then, as science developed, women were deemed biologically lesser than men, who seemed stronger and smarter. In the 21st century, some believe that women remain outside the leadership circle because of a widespread cultural upbringing that leaves them less brave or bold than their male peers.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is famously behind this latter belief; her speeches and books often concern womankind’s underestimation of their abilities, failure to negotiate, and unwillingness to accept accomplishment. Her recommendation is for women to “sit at the table” with men and “lean in” to the conversation and their convictions. However, if women aren’t invited to the table – if they aren’t even close to getting in the room – they can’t follow this advice.

When polled, strong majorities of Americans reject the notion that women aren’t suitable for leadership roles. Average Americans claim to believe that women are tough enough to hold positions in the government and savvy enough to make good managers and executives. Yet, when women hold just 19 percent of legislative positions and make up less than 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, there is an obvious discrepancy between belief and action.

The most likely reason women remain outside the C-suite and off the Senate floor is men. Men still hold most positions of power, and fewer than half of them believe that gender inequality exists. Because they don’t acknowledge the reality of gender discrimination, many male leaders enforce a system they don’t believe in by preventing women from reaching top positions. Then, positions of power comfortably remain old boys’ clubs, women continue to suffer in silence, and the incongruity between what Americans say and do widens.

Worst Careers for Female Leaders

Some jobs are notably worse for ambitious women than others. Female-dominated professions tend to be more accepting of women in leadership roles, but many of the highest-paying, most powerful careers remain firmly in the grasp of male leaders. Women looking for easy equality should stay away from the following careers, which boast the highest gaps between male and female pay.

  • Doctors and surgeons. Wage gap: 62.2 percent
  • Financial managers. Wage gap: 67.4 percent
  • Sales and related workers. Wage gap: 69.4 percent
  • First-line supervisors. Wage gap: 70.0 percent
  • Marketing and sales managers. Wage gap: 70.8 percent
  • Human resources workers. Wage gap: 72.6 percent
  • Real estate brokers and sale agents. Wage gap: 73.3 percent

Breaking the Cast-Iron Ceiling

It’s easy to put the onus of resolving gender discrimination on men, however, human culture is complex, and the reasons for women’s inequality cannot be resolved by just half of the population. Informing and educating men on the reality of the wage gap, the dearth of female leaders, and other pervasive, gender-specific issues is just one step; to effect lasting change, women need to be involved in their empowerment.

Women must be willing to recognize the elements of their cultural upbringing that are holding them back, such as aversion to risk and assumption of relative skill, among others. Earning an online MBA should help women improve their business knowledge, allowing them to feel more comfortable developing plans and expressing innovative ideas. Finally, women should be transparent about their workplace experiences, informing men and other women of unfair language or practices to bring institutionalized inequality to light.

Perhaps most importantly, women should support other women. Women should seek female mentors and mentees; they should associate with groups of female professionals; they should encourage their female peers with constructive feedback and positivity. Once a female leader reaches a position of power, she should be willing and able to bring other women up with her. Women cannot win the fight for power entirely without men, but they certainly don’t stand a chance without other women standing beside them.