Take a look around most corporate boardrooms. Glance through the ranks of executive leadership of the top U.S. corporations or in the halls of most legislative bodies. Peek into the research labs of America’s largest scientific organizations. No surprises here — they’re still mostly occupied by men. 

There’s no shortage of research to document the lack of gender diversity in our workplaces. Among the Fortune 500, according to the Pew Research Center, only 5.4% of CEOs are female, and 20.2% of board seats are filled by women. Only 21% of U.S. Senators are women, while women make up 19.1% of members of the U.S. House of Representatives. At the state level, women make up 24.8% of legislatures and 8% of governorships. In the current presidential administration, there are two women in a cabinet of 15 people.

Among S&P 500 companies, research firm Catalyst demonstrated the dwindling representation of women in as employees progress into positions of power:

  • CEOs: 5.8%
  • Top Earners: 9.5%
  • Board Seats: 19.9%
  • Executive/Senior-Level Officials/Managers: 25.1%
  • First/Mid-Level Officials and Managers: 36.4%
  • Total Employees: 44.3%

Progress has been made, though slowly — in 1995 there were zero female CEOs in the Fortune 500, and only 9.6% of board seats were held by women. In state and national government, 2% of governors were women, as were 9% of U.S. senators and 10.8% of U.S. representatives. 

The statistics are clear, but the problem is complex. A persistent wage gap exists — widely cited as an earnings ratio of 80% but fluctuating by age, occupation and educational attainment. According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), it’s as stark as 74% among workers with advanced degrees and those over the age of 65, while standing at 90% among workers aged 20 to 34. The gap is also more marked for mothers and women of color. 

Source: American Association of University Women (AAUW)
Major employers have also failed to make the kind of systemic changes required to attract and retain female employees, and there is a dearth of resources available to help women — especially mothers — succeed in the hierarchical environments that persist in corporate America. Influences from early childhood — parents, media, teachers, career counselors — can still play a role in perpetuating traditional views of “women’s work.” Meanwhile, fewer women than men find meaningful mentors and sponsors who can pull them up into positions of leadership. 

Diane Bergeron, Weatherhead School of Management
“Women tend to be on the margins of the networks when the center of the networks are the more powerful positions,” says Diane Bergeron, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. “The principle of homophily operates in many organizations, where we tend to affiliate with people who are like us. So if the whole senior leadership team is white males, we tend to pull up other white males.” 

Though examples of explicit bias exist, many of the biases that create barriers to women in leadership are implicit. And, lest anyone assume they are unencumbered by implicit bias, a group of researchers have developed Project Implicit, which allows anyone to take a test to measure their own implicit biases. “This could be unconscious bias, but women have to work harder,” Bergeron says. “Women have to work harder at establishing the social networks and relationships, they just have to be better than a man to get the same exact performance evaluation.”

WHERE SHOULD THE RESPONSIBILITY LIE?

In 2013, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg published her book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will To Lead,” in which she posited that women should lean in, not away, from their careers as they reach the point of tension between family life and professional achievement. She encouraged women to take and keep their seat at the table, spend less energy seeking out mentors — which she calls “the professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming” — and to not “leave before you leave” — in other words, limiting their own career advancement long before reaching that point of tension, anticipating the trade-offs they believe they will have to make. She’s since followed up the book by creating a nonprofit organization called Lean In that encourages women to apply such principles. 

But Sandberg’s premise was met with some consternation among women. The most direct response can be found in a lauded article in The Atlantic the same year titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” written by Anne-Marie Slaughter, today president and CEO of the think tank New America and a former U.S. State Department official. She writes, in part: 

“Although couched in terms of encouragement, Sandberg’s exhortation contains more than a note of reproach. We who have made it to the top, or are striving to get there, are essentially saying to the women in the generation behind us: ‘What’s the matter with you?”’

Is it really the responsibility of individual women to remove the barriers that exist to their advancement? Or are they at the mercy of external barriers that are too insurmountable for any one person to penetrate? And if so, who bears the responsibility for dissolving such barriers? Government? Individual businesses? Higher education? Some other civic effort?

“There is a role for the individual. They must equip themselves to become qualified and ready for leadership, they must sit at the table as Sandberg describes, they must raise their hands, they must find support at home in their partners,” says Diana Bilimoria, department chair of organizational behavior at the Weatherhead School and a noted researcher in the area of gender diversity in leadership. “But if if we only focus on individual

Diana Bilmoria, Weatherhead School of Management
solutions, we miss the opportunity.” 

Bilimoria asserts that responsibility to encourage women’s advancement into leadership lies at multiple levels — senior executives must take responsibility for internal change, professional development organizations must play a role within each occupation, and community organizations and local governments have a role to play in workforce development. 

Countries such as Norway, Iceland, Finland and Sweden have set quotas for female representation on corporate boards, leading to rates about double (34%) those of other countries (18%). Even in those places, says Bilimoria, “those are single solutions. They can have women on boards, but still the culture doesn’t change.” 

One part of the individual woman’s role in creating change lies in self-awareness, thinking critically about where she wants her career to go. As a long-time coach for women in upper and middle management roles,

Ellen Van Oosten, Weatherhead School of Management
Ellen Van Oosten says that many women simply haven’t gone through the self-reflection process required to become more effective leaders. “Women often have had very little opportunity to consider those questions about their future or hold the mirror up to see how things are going now,” says Van Oosten, who is also faculty director of executive education at the Weatherhead School. “Men in general tend to zero in on future vision … they are focused in on the path to getting somewhere. … Women, we tend to take care of others.” 

“ONE HAND TIED BEHIND OUR BACKS”

The good news is that an increasing number of organizations are recognizing the need for greater gender diversity in leadership — not as a gesture of goodwill but as a contributing factor to the bottom line. Speaking at The United State of Women Summit in 2016, Berkshire Hathaway chairman and CEO Warren Buffett said that more women in leadership is essential in the American economy, and that absent gender diversity, our country would be “playing with one hand tied behind its back.”

In 2016, global tax and advisory firm Grant Thornton attempted to quantify the opportunity cost lost by firms with male-only boards. It measured the return on assets (ROA) of the companies with at least one woman on their boards in the US S&P 500 (7%), the India CNX 200 (22.5%) and the UK FTSE 350 (13.4%) and found that those companies with diverse boards outperformed those in each of these markets. According to their research, the lost opportunity costs totaled $567 billion in the U.S., $14 billion in India and $74 billion in the U.K., a total of $655 billion in these three markets alone.

Meanwhile, global consulting firm McKinsey found in its 2015 study “The Power of Parity” that $12 trillion can be added to global GDP by 2025 by

Source: McKinsey
advancing women’s equality. That’s a 26% increase from a “business as usual” scenario. Of the 95 countries studied, India had the most to gain — with a 16% GDP increase — followed by Latin America (14%) and China (12%). In the United States in particular, McKinsey posits that the country’s 50 largest cities stand to increase their GDP by 6% to 13% by advancing the economic potential of women. 

“There’s an alignment between what’s needed for leaders today and tomorrow and what women naturally bring to a workplace,” says Bilimoria. “They are collaborative, relational, connective. They bring people together to seek input from a wide range of constituencies. They look beyond the bottom line for the impact on the community and the environment. They look to the long term rather than to a quick fix.”

Catalyst research compared corporate performance with female representation on boards between 2004 and 2008 using the measures of return on sales (ROS), return on invested capital (ROIC) and return on equity (ROE). It found that companies with the most women board directors outperformed those with the fewest in ROS by 16% and in ROIC by 26%. Those companies with sustained high representation of women on boards — three or more over at least four or five years — outperformed those with sustained low representation by 84% in ROS, 60% in ROIC and in 46% ROE. The organization launched a program in Canada in 2007 and in the U.S. in 2015 called “Women on Board” to encourage the appointment of women on corporate boards. To date, the organization claims that nearly 60% of the women who participated in the program have been appointed to the boards of nearly 140 companies.

ORGANIZATIONAL “WIVES”

Companies derive intangible benefits from the role of women in their workforce as well, which are often overlooked and underestimated. Take a look at most offices — who’s the one who decorates the office for the holidays? Takes time to mentor or share expertise with a new or struggling employee? Mediates office conflict? Brings meals to a grieving co-worker? Most likely, that employee is a woman. 

Bergeron calls these “organizational wives,” women who proactively take on these invisible extra tasks in the workplace that are similar to traditional “wifely” contributions at home. They are rarely part of a woman’s job description, but they help contribute to the culture and success of an organization.

“We call those behaviors ‘organizational citizenship behaviors,’ and there’s a lot of research showing those behaviors are linked to any number of positive outcomes for the group or the organization — higher profitability, higher effectiveness, higher customer satisfaction, higher productivity,” she says. Her research shows that “if you are a good citizen you get higher performance evaluations but lower compensation and don’t advance as quickly because you were spending more time on citizenship behaviors. … Because those behaviors are expected of women, when women do them, they don’t really get noticed as much.”

Such results are most apparent in organizations in which job performance is measured by  billable hours or other outcomes — accounting and legal firms, consultancies, sales organizations or research universities. In the latter, performance is measured in part by a professor’s ability to publish their research. In Bergeron’s study of 600 faculty at 70 research universities, she found that female faculty members had less research productivity and slower career advancement. “My data shows that people who spend too much time on these extra behaviors have fewer publications. … It’s a resource allocation. Where are you spending your time and energy?”

STEM: A CASE STUDY IN CHALLENGES TO WOMEN IN LEADERSHIP

Nowhere is the focus on women in leadership more high-profile than in STEM fields. “There’s been 40 years of research on why there aren’t more women in STEM. There’s been 50 years of research on why there aren’t more women in leadership,” says Kathleen Buse, a longtime engineer who began her career at Eastman Kodak and today serves as a career coach and management consultant focused on helping women thrive in STEM careers. “We understand a lot of the underlying factors, but we don’t understand how to overcome it.”

Kathleen Buse, Weatherhead School of Management
She says that one of the biggest factors is implicit biases that persist in childhood about STEM fields being more suited for boys, and these biases start with a child’s earliest influences — a parent or other caregiver — and continue throughout her life through teachers, the media, career counselors and employers. High-profile programs have attempted to expose and encourage more girls into STEM careers, but Buse says that more longitudinal studies are needed to prove the efficacy of such programs. The barriers persist along the path to a career, she says, as the implicit biases of teachers and career counselors can fail to encourage girls interested in science to explore STEM-related career paths. 

Media has an impact too, she says — for example, the organization SeeJane.org, headed by actress Geena Davis, is working to encourage strong role models for girls under 12 in movies, television shows and other media. Meanwhile, General Electric recently launched a television ad featuring Millie Dresselhaus, the physicist and MIT professor who was a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science. Amid images of young girls receiving dolls with Dresselhaus’ likeness and teenagers posing for selfies with her on the street, the ad asks “what if we treated great female scientists like they were stars?” The company used the ad to announce its goal of having 20,000 women in STEM roles by 2020 and achieving a one-to-one ratio of women to men in technical entry-level programs.

There has been progress — according to statistics by the National Science Foundation, the number of women with STEM degrees or in STEM occupations has doubled over the last two decades. Yet the disparities are still marked — women today make up half of the college-educated workforce in all fields, but in STEM women make up only 29% of the workforce. 

Source: National Science Foundation
In the 2010 report “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics,” researchers from AAUW attempted to explain these disparities. In addition to the childhood impact of implicit biases among influential adults, the AAUW also laid some responsibility at the feet of higher education, which AAUW says should do more to actively recruit female students, emphasize the broad applications of STEM coursework and review admissions policies for unintentional bias. 

“The space that needs attention is retention,” says Van Oosten. “What are organizations doing to keep women in the STEM fields? Part of it is a lack of awareness on the part of the organization and also is that they are uncomfortable identifying a population like women and giving them special treatment.”

Buse also sees a major hurdle in the mid-career progression of women into roles of leadership. What factors keep them there? “It’s having work that’s meaningful and challenging where they can be continuously learning. These are bright, high-achieving women, and a lot of times they are relegated to what I call the ‘velvet ghetto,’” says Buse, who is also a research consultant for AAUW and a member of the adjunct faculty at the Weatherhead School. “They’re relegated to work that’s not challenging, and where they’re not in a position to be promoted. So they leave because they don’t believe that they can be successful.”

Buse leads a program at the Weatherhead School called Leadership Lab for Women in STEM, designed to help identify and overcome the barriers to success for women in STEM fields. Working with a coach, participants already working in STEM fields reflect on the factors that that may inhibit their career growth and develop tools and strategies to help overcome them. “A lot of times women are doing things because they think they should,” says Buse. “For the first time in the Leadership Lab, women sit down and say, ‘what do I want to do?’ … A lot of them are in roles where they’re the only woman in their work team or in their department, so [this is a way] to come and talk through the issues that they face.” 

A PATH FORWARD

“I believe this is a social engineering problem that is very complex,” says Buse. “We have to use data to create a strong case … and partner across organizations, universities, corporations, researchers, parents, to really make a change.” 

Increasing gender diversity in the workplace will be about “small wins,” says Bergeron — a gradual increase of women in positions of power, more men stepping up into equal partnership roles, work environments that are more family-friendly. Organizations also need to become more aware of the implicit biases that exist in their workplaces, and take proactive steps to overcome then. These experts agree that there is a role for individual women as well, to gain more self-awareness about their personal vision for their careers and chart a path to get there. 

Higher education must also play a critical role in creating change, says Bilimoria, “especially business schools, which could be leaders in this area but are not currently. They are not seeing their role as critical change agents … to drive the changes that are needed in workplaces so they can become even more responsive, even more flexible, more geared toward what’s needed for the future.”

“Simply put,” says Bilimoria, “women in leadership matter.”