This Is Why We Have A Gender Gap In Leadership

At this point, it's pretty much common knowledge that as a society, we don't have enough women in leadership roles. Of course this will vary a bit depending on your field, your location, and circumstances like socioeconomic class or race; as the Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership report from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) shows, though, the unfortunate reality is true pretty much across the board: We need way more women in leadership. For context, most of us are already familiar with the gender wage gap and how strongly it impacts women: Across all races, ages, orientations, and fields, white men make more money than women on average, which is pretty horrifying. In terms of leadership, things don't look much better, either. In spite of a high amount of qualified women entering the workforce, it's a rarity to find women in leadership positions; indeed, as of June 2015, only five percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are women.

The AAUW's Barriers and Bias report, which was released in March of 2016, discusses the possible reasons we don't see more women in leadership roles. The study isn't meant to excuse or justify the absence of women leaders, but to determine what exactly happens along the way that keeps women out of positions of power — and, perhaps more importantly, how we can use that information to find a solution to this huge problem.

1. The Pipeline Problem

As AAUW explains in their report, more women are obtaining higher education degrees than ever before (including bachelors, masters, and doctoral programs), giving them the background and skills to become leaders. Basically, women qualified to be leaders are not a rarity. So what's happening between school and leadership positions? Women are getting stuck in the pipeline. For some fields, like STEM, women are discouraged from pursing science or math as serious career or educational paths at a young age, so by the time they finish college or enter the workforce, it may be "too late" to get the training or background they need for a tech or STEM job.

But the AAUW report also speculates that, since fewer women are leaving the workforce than has historically been the case (as in, when women left to become primary caregivers for children and families), there will be additional pressure for companies to make room for women as leaders; as a result, they'll have just as much (if not more so) actual work experience as men.

2. Persistent Sex Discrimination

While overt gender discrimination is illegal, it definitely still happens; additionally, subtle discrimination happens all the time. As the AAUW report puts it: "Hostile work environments are a form of discrimination that can shape careers," and I think that's so (painfully) true. When women experience sexism, sexual harassment, and gender bias again and again in the workplace, it can feel discouraging, demeaning, and demoralizing. In my opinion, it's no surprise that women feel pressured to leave hostile work environments for their own safety or mental health. It's also important to note that while gender discrimination is illegal, it's pretty hard for women to win these cases in court, especially when the sexism or harassment is "subtle."

3. The False Expectations of Women's "Choices"

The AAUW reports that above all else, the biggest obstacle for women looking for leadership positions is the ability to balance their career with caregiving and family expectations. As the report points out, many women assume the primary role in child-rearing, and the pressure is even greater on women who are raising single-parent families. During their peak years in the workforce, many women are pressured to stay home with their families instead of building work experience along with their male peers. While raising a family is hypothetically a choice, the expectation of women as caregivers is definitely ingrained in our society and culture, so it can be a difficult mindset to break out of. The AAUW also notes that for women who do not get paid maternity leave, they're more likely to leave their jobs and not return to their career path later.

4. Ineffective Networking and Mentorships

No matter what your path is, having a mentor who has your back can really help move you in the right direction. In fact, some studies show that having a mentor on your side can actually be more beneficial to your career in the long-term than the quality of your actual work performance. As the AAUP report explains, men and women are equally likely to have mentors, but women are far less likely to actually benefit in terms of networking, salary, and advancement. Even for women who do get a foot into the proverbial old boy's club through their mentor, it can be difficult to fit in: As the AAU report notes, very often traditional "networking" still takes the form of activities our culture codes as masculine, like golf or hunting. For women who do come to task for a Sunday afternoon of golf with the boss, it can be difficult to schedule around family responsibilities, if the assumption at home is that you, as the woman, will spend your free time with the kids.

The AAUW report is pretty thorough so it's definitely worth reading in full. Combating sexism and gender discrimination in the workplace are definitely priorities we need to keep in mind moving forward, and determining what factors impact the current state of women's inequality in positions of power is a significant part of figuring out how to solve the problem for the future.

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