Does Anyone Care About the Lack of Women in Leadership Positions?

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An article in The Atlantic magazine entitled “Why Women Can’t Have It All” has spread like wildfire through my Facebook and Twitter feed, and with good reason. The article is long, so give yourself some time if you decide to read it, but it is a chilling account of the difficult choices that women face when deciding where to focus their energies between career and family.

Some might say that chilling is too strong a word to describe this issue, but I would bet that people who would say that are not 40 year old females. This article raised more issues than I can describe in a short blog post. But I will give it my best shot.

It seems that my generation of women has been set up in some ways – entirely unintentionally, but set up for failure nonetheless. Whatever choice a woman makes about where to focus her energies, she pays a price in other areas of her life. And she frequently feels guilt regardless of which choice she made.

Many of my friends focused on establishing themselves in their careers in their 20s and early 30s, which are prime child-bearing years. By the time these women turned their focus to starting a family, after becoming more established in their careers, their biological clocks have frequently run out.

I cannot tell you the number of women I know who have had to turn to medicine to enable them to have children. Aside from the financial expense of taking this route, the emotional toll on a woman and her partner is substantial.

This article argues that if companies and organizations want to have women in leadership positions, things have to change. In addition to the author of the article, who held a high-level position in the State Department, it highlights several other prominent women, including Mary Matalin and Karen Hughes who both made the decision to leave high-level positions because they could not achieve the work-life balance they needed. I applaud the author for her courage in choosing to speak out on this complex and highly-charged subject.

I remember applying for a high level, stressful job several years ago. When asked how long I would expect to stay in the position,  I told the interviewing panel that I would likely stay for a long period of time if I could achieve a good work-life balance in the position. I was the last of two candidates – guess who did not get the job?

This is a fundamental cultural issue. We must begin the conversation now. Perhaps if we start the conversation, younger women will not be faced with the same choices that women of my generation have faced. Companies will have more women in leadership positions and be able to take advantage of the human capital that comes with this. Sounds like a win-win to me!

Some highlights from the article:

The best hope for improving the lot of all women, and for closing what Wolfers and Stevenson call a “new gender gap”—measured by well-being rather than wages—is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.

Ultimately, it is society that must change, coming to value choices to put family ahead of work just as much as those to put work ahead of family. If we really valued those choices, we would value the people who make them; if we valued the people who make them, we would do everything possible to hire and retain them; if we did everything possible to allow them to combine work and family equally over time, then the choices would get a lot easier.

What do you think? If you are not from the United States, do you feel like women face these same pressures in your country? If not, why not? What ideas do you have to change this dynamic? How can we make corporate and organizational leaders think differently about the lack of female talent in leadership positions? How do we help people understand that there are options that will keep talented individuals for longer periods of time if we just allow for a little more flexibility? Have you or your family faced these challenges? How have you handled them?

I would love to hear your thoughts. Thank you for reading.

76 Comments

Filed under Career Planning, Culture, Economy, Education, equality, Ethics, Health, Income inequality, International, Parenting, Policy, Politcs, Poverty, Relationships, social pressures, Stereotypes, Technology, Women, Youth Leadership

76 responses to “Does Anyone Care About the Lack of Women in Leadership Positions?

  1. I haven’t faced challenges like this personally, and I probably I never will. But my understanding of the corporate world leads me to believe that you have to be very aggressive in handling staff, and when closing a deal and making higher profits for the company..
    I believe that most men who are running the companies look at women as too soft and feminine for the job. Although we all know that a woman can kick but and knows how to get the job done just as well as any man.

    • Lucky you. And I know many women who haven’t faced this, as well. But most women who delayed child bearing to focus on a career have not had an easy time of it once they decided that they wanted children. It sounds good on paper, but apparently our biological clocks do not agree. And people who tried to do it all at once have probably struggled the most! The article makes a great point that it is hard for women to enter the workforce at 40 and try to climb any sort of ladder, so women who make that choice pay a price as well. To me, the answer is simply for companies to develop policies and procedures to allow more space and time for men and women both to have more time and flexiblity to focus on things outside work. Thanks so much for reading and taking time to comment!

  2. I am a bit confused here. Isn’t this the “glass ceiling” problem that has been around for years? I gather some new data have raised the issue again, But my take on the situation is that it’s a Catch 22: until women gain the power to promote women they will remain in the “ranks.” With men in power, they stick to their stereotypical views of women and women are passed by when it comes to promotion. The “solution” suggested in your article presupposes the problem already solved! If that many women were in positions of power, we wouldn’t be having this discussion! But that won’t happen as long as men hold the reins — and are stuck in the mud of their age-old prejudices (and perhaps, Freud would say, their hatred of their mothers).

    • Hi Hugh! I’ll write more later and sorry if I was not clear, but the issue has evolved substantially to require women and families to think about what happens after women bust through the glass ceiling. To enable us to stay in those positions.

      • Yes, clarity would help! But if I understand what you are now saying, it would help if we re-thought our notion of what work is. If we started to think about work as a small part of our lives then men and women would have more leisure and be better able to raise the children together or separately while still holding down a job — and important positions in the job. Our culture is business-crazy. We think life is swork and try to squeeze all other items in our lives (including school) into the work paradigm. What is required is a radical paradigm shift!

        • Exactly! And you know that that is what I like to explore best here. 🙂 It is something worth looking at – not just for women, but more women breaking through the glass ceiling and describing the price they paid in terms of their family lives has really brought this issue to light. And there is a piece of growing pains in the feminist movement here, as well, I think. Women in the generation of the woman who authored this article and in my generation were told that we can have it all if we just try hard enough. But it is turning out to not be so simple. Some of this stems from the fact that the expectations of women as the primary caregivers and the ones to take care of household chores, etc. does ot go away just because a woman has a high-powered job. But if we start the conversation and are honest about our experiences, hopefully we can change things to make work-lie alance more sustainable for men and for women!

  3. This is a great subject, haven’t had a chance to dig into the article referenced but I will. I joined the military (USAF) right out of high school and gradually worked up to more responsibility, longer work hours, more stress all the while trying to balance my marriage, taking care of the home, taking care of myself. In 2002 I had a nervous breakdown and was medically retired. I feel trying too hard to do the life – career balancing contributed. I am 44 years old and because of the “labels” I have, am unable to work. During those years of service I gave myself a timeframe of when I would consider having children no longer an option – 38 yrs was what I chose. At 34 is when I had the breakdown and within two years a divorce. In 2005 I had a hysterectomy because of reaccuring ovarian cysts….I never had a child. During my years of service I never felt it was right to have one with the schedule I had to keep and my family history of mental illness. Many women around me did choose to have children and either during the pregnancy or shortly after separated from the mlitary because they couldn’t balance career – family. The reasons, I feel women don’t bust through the glass ceiling involve their gender, societal expectations of women, just the way women are “wired” and the emphasis by corporations on who is going to get them to their ultimate goal – the most earnings. Having a woman who is going to need time off from work from when the child is conceived to well after the child is born is counterproductive to the bottom line. It’s far easier to hire a man to totally circumvent all these issues. There are more “housemen” these days which is progress. Women use their hearts and their minds in the decision making process which can really “tear one apart” on the tough calls in business. I hate to say it but the monthly visitor in an office of women….sucks. I say this from experience. I could go on but I’ve already been long winded here. This is a complex subject and you are right — until we get beyond our patriarchal and societal views on the roles of women and men….things aren’t going to change and if they do it’s going to continue at a snails pace.

    • Hear hear! Thanks for your honesty in sharing your experience. I think the more women speak out about this, the more progress we will make. I am sorry to hear about your struggles with this. But you are certainly not alone. Thanks for reading and for your comment!

  4. Reblogged this on saymberblondi and commented:
    The referenced article is VERY long but well worth reading. It addresses my own experience as a working woman and the choices/sacrifices I had to make.

  5. A great post – thank you for writing it! I agree we need a balance of women and men in power. But I think women have to work harder to get there (and that’s ok, we have it what it takes) and I also think they need to stop trying to act and think like men to do it. All people, men and women, show their best when they are true to themselves and their natural and learned skills and talents. That’s when we shine, that’s when we stand out, that’s when those seeking to fill leadership positions take notice regardless of our gender.

    • Absolutely. And I think that is part of the issue. The only way that most women have been able to break through the glass ceiling is by neglecting parts of themselves that align less with the dog-eat-dog business world. But this is what makes it so many of us pay a price. I do think having a balance of genders in leadership is ideal, but if the working environment does not enable people to balance their life commitments with their work commitments, through things like working from home, video conferencing, and flexible work schedules, this will never happen because women will still be forced to make the choice – and many will choose family. The number of women in leadership positions without children is cited in this article too. But we shouldn’t have to choose one or the other. Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comment, as always. 🙂

      • I agree. However, if what we have been doing to get our point across is not working, we need to change our tactics. Let’s not try to convince men to speak for us, to advocate for us. Let’s speak for ourselves. Let’s vision. Let’s say by 2020 women will represent 50% of leadership positions. Let’s work backwards from there and build strategies to make it happen. Let’s showcase women who have turned companies around. Let’s nominate women for Nobel Peace prizes. Let’s empower the next generation of women to dream and believe – really believe. Let’s vote for women (qualified women) Let’s demonstrate that women have unique gifts and create unique solutions. But also let’s demonstrate that we still need men as well. That there is a balance. That the unique gifts of men and women are needed. Mark it on your calendars girls – 2020 and know that we might have to work twice as hard as men to get there. It could mean no balance for us, but balance for the next generation. Are you up for it? Do you believe? Do we have a leader to step up and take this on? Sorry, can you tell that I am passionate about empowering women. And sidebar here: Women HAVE been leading since the beginning of time, it’s just not always in our nature to take the credit.

  6. I don’t think you can have it all … I think you can try but you need support and a husband or partner that pitches in … and then I think women don’t want to make the same kind of sacrifices men do (most of the time) we want to work in teams and acknowledge this which makes becoming the boss that bit more difficult as we don’t get recognized the same way men do who say they did it all. And yes society may think women and men have equal rights but in essence this is not true … the figures show that still more then 70% of women look after the household and children and have a job, they still tend to earn less AND when hiring time comes around even if they aren’t aloud to ask it they do wonder about missed times for having children etc … times may have moved on but not as much as everyone thinks

  7. I shared this post on my facebook page and am recieving so much feedback. I’m trying to encourage them to comment here…but in the meantime, check this out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18uDutylDa4&feature=player_embedded

  8. Anonymous

    Thank you for the article and now interesting debate.

    I don’t feel held back because of my gender at all.I think we are at the point the best person does get the job for the job demands. As usual with any decision to assist in any equality injustices from the past, we swing the pendulum to one side and it stays there and things are no longer equal. Quite honestly I wouldn’t want to get a job or a higher position just because I was female, I would want to know I got it because I was the best candidate.

    Think of the companies as well, is it fair for a company to lose someone for 1-2 years each time a child is born? ( I live in Quebec women get 1 year of maternity leave) If I want that top demanding position it is up to ME to make the work/life balance and to make sacrifices when necessary.

    Sounds more like a case of being – I want to lose weight but I want the cake, I ate the cake didn’t lose all the weight but not MY fault it’s the cakes!

    – I work at a very well known large company – and quite honestly where are the men? Majority of our big bosses are…..WOMEN.

    I also think it’s sad that women don’t think men make sacrifices for these top positions, do we still think men don’t want to be part of their children’s lives, that they don’t have stress? I know, I know, women by nature do at least 85% more work in the home but still, I know many men who have put their careers on hold while their children were young so they could have that work/life balance.

    • Thanks for sharing this and you’re right the pendulum does seem to swing too far when change comes, I always hope it comes back and lands somewhere in the middle. We need both genders to be fully engaged! And the truth is leadership isn’t for everybody but for those gifted in that area, gender should not be the determining factor.

    • Thanks so much for your comment. You are right that there are more women in leadership positions than ever. And I am not suggesting that companies should give women positions just to add diversity. I am not even saying that companies should have different policies for moms. I am saying that companies miss out on some top talent because they don’t have more family-friendly policies, such as flexible work hours and telecommuting. Sure, companies can hire a young whipper snapper who hasn’t had to think about these issues yet, but they lose out on people with experience and expertise. And, no question that men have made sacrifices as well. This needs to be part of any meaningful discussion about this. But men don’t have that biological clock screaming at them. If they delay childbearing, they just marry a younger woman! Thanks for continuing this important discussion and thanks to Diana for keeping this going and spreading the word! BTW, in the US, we get up to 6 weeks maternity leave, generally unpaid. Many women take less or take that and then quit because they realize it isn’t enough time. Thanks again for reading and taking time to comment.

  9. We do need a better balance of power, in the workplace, and especially in government. It was sickening to see a committee made entirely of men deciding issues that had everything to do with women’s health issues–and how they scorned and tried to deny educated and well-spoken women the opportunity to voice an opinion.

  10. I agree that we need more women in leadership positions to advocate for the rights of women. i also believe that we have to find ways to model the type of world we want to see against the odds that society, corporations and culture put in our way. For me, that has been moving away from the traditional career paths and creating my own journey.
    Despite all the political challenges we face, I do think this is the best time for women to create lifestyles that are empowering and balanced. That said, I’m still working on work/life myself! 🙂
    Thanks for your thought provoking article!

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree that it is a great time for women to create the life they want if economic circumstances allow. And maybe that is where this is headed – towards more women-owned businesses that will model balance and success! Thanks for your hopeful and thoughtful comment!

  11. a quiet person

    This article moves me. I know of women on various sides – those who feel they have to focus their energies on building a career, and those who have children and struggle to balance family and work. I believe there are more opportunities than ever before for women in the workplace, but debates and articles like this continue to highlight the need to combat complacency. Thanks for posting this!

    • Thanks so much for reading and for your comment. The article moves me as well, as you can tell. And I too, know women who have made all sorts of different choices and still feel guilt. I really appreciate you taking the time to weigh in on this!

  12. I work in a field where women greatly outnumber men but not until the last 2 years have I worked somewhere that women are in high leadership positions.
    I do think paradigm shift is the correct phase for how society should consider work-life. I do not have children but I do have family, friends, hobbies, and a gym membership that could use a lot more attention. My company tries hard to care, much more than most. In the end, it is all about productivity, goals, and profit. Both men and women need to stop being pushed into an anxiety lifestyle to be balanced by Xanax and ambien. Maybe with more women in power, we have a chance?

    • This is precisely what I was talking about previously: we need to redefine “work” and its place in our lives. There is no need for us to regard word as the defining activity in our lives: “Who is Jones? Oh, he’s the actuarial that works downtown.” This is the way we think. Life is not all about work: we need to reconfigure our priorities — a new paradigm.

      • Well said. That is exactly what is needed. It is so ingrained in our culture that it is going to be a long journey, but we know that every journey begins with a single step!

    • I agree completely. I also think women and men both have to be more honest and open about the sacrifices they are making instead of being afraid the higher-ups will disapprove and look for someone who is willing to silently sacrifice. Thanks so much for reading and for your comment!

      • That is true. I have tried to learn from friends and family that have literally made themselves sick trying to give 110% and never said a word to the boss. I have started pushing back a little when I know what I am being asked to do will make me sick, miserable or resentful. I am lucky to be in a field that still has pretty high demand so I can be a bit higher maintenance–for lack of a better term.

        • Exactly. I actually made myself sick about 7 or 8 years ago – TMJ to the point where I needed surgery and braces. Since then, I have been committed to not letting that happen again. I think that is what makes me so passionate about this. How many people need to get sick before things change? Thanks for keeping the conversation going!

          • I know of one work place that is so bad….In 2 years this small to medium company has had one person die from-likely a heart attack, one quit 2 weeks in do to a new blood pressure issue, another retire early for health and sanity, 2 people with infections found usually in partially immune suppressed people, and I am pretty sure there are more that I don’t know of because this is like 3 people removed from me.
            How can that make business sense? If the number of unemployed drops, maybe, just maybe, companies will start to reassess the policy of workers being expendable pawns. Doing the right thing in capitalism has to be tied to profit and goals. At some point, the health and wellness of staff has to affect the bottom line. It would be interesting to get a CEO’s POV. Thanks for the interesting topic.

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  14. I agree with Katie’s comment above that this, namely work/life balance is an issue for both men and women. In fact, I tweeted the attached article a couple of days ago which made this very point (don’t you love the title?).
    http://www.forbes.com/sites/brycecovert/2012/06/21/if-women-cant-have-it-all-neither-can-men-parenting-career/.

    It will require a cultural shift to change, one where we place some import on the factors that lead to enhanced productivity, such as wellbeing and balance. We need more voices like the one in this article and for people to openly acknowledge the work/life balance struggle. We also need to publicise and talk about some real positive experiences from the CEO’s or high profile managers. The positive experiances could be something as small as leaving the office at 3pm every Wednesday to attend a child’s soccer practice, whilst still being classified as working “full time”. But the fact that this is occuring routinely and without stigma is a step in the right direction. Most professionals I know would more than welcome being treated like the grown up adults that they are and be empowered to juggle thier own competing competing commitments and this is where it starts.

    • Great comment, as always. 🙂 Exactly!!! I love how you say that people would welcome being treated as adults who can balance their own competing commitments. And the soccer game is just what I am talking about! Thanks for reading and weighing in.

  15. Having worked with female colleagues and clients, I have professed to many that a working mother is the hardest job in the world. The demands are many and there are only so many hours in the day. Men have an advantage in this country as they tend not to be the primary health care steward in the family. There are more women going to college than men, so this has to remedy itself more, but it seems slower than it should. I am very troubled by the retrenching of women in politics, We definitely need a better balance of gender in the houses of power. Yet, while we struggle here some, this issue is paramount in countries whose culture or religions denigrate women. These countries are competing with one arm (maybe more) tied behind their back as they are not taking advantage of the intellectual capital of 1/2 their population. These countries will never grow like they could and destined to have an impoverished population.

    • Good comment! It helps to keep our perspective. American women are luckier than most, but they still suffer from blatant discrimination. The kind of discussion our friend Jennifer is generating cannot but help, (Let’s hope she turns it into a book!)

      • Thanks for the encouragement! If I do write a book, it will be very much due to your support and encouragement Hugh, so thanks so much for that!

        • Speaking of keeping our perspective: it was announced today that a small number of Saudi women will be “allowed” to participate in the Olympics this year! A virtual breakthrough!
          You are welcome to all the encouragement I can muster, Jennifer! Keep up the good work (just look at the responses you generated. You obviously know how to strike gold!)

    • Great point as always, old fart! But I think these are two different issues. Women in the United States have busted through many glass ceilings, but now we have to find a way to make that sustainable and not to say that a woman has to give up having a family to make that work. Women in other countries have a whole other set of issues to contend with, as you note. I would like to sign up to work on those issues as well! Thanks again for your thoughtful comment!

  16. There’s been a ‘gender-balance’ movement going on in my organization for the last ten years or so … but in the end, it’s still the ‘old boys network’, and there is a long way to go before it’s balanced. Yes, the women outnumber the men, but it’s in the support staff positions, and not the decision-making positions. Interestingly, the women in the higher-level positions with the decision-making powers have men as their deputies. I wonder how much the men influence the women in their decision-making?

    • Exactly. It is interesting once you take away the support positions and look at the numbers. It really changes the picture, doesn’t it? It is very interesing to explore the complex reasons for this. Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment!

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  18. The problem is the same here in Australia. I have two children (2 and 4) and I work part-time. It suits me at the moment because I have a bit of work and a bit of time with the children. Having children and a career means you do need to adjust your career goals, at least for a few years, but I do think that if you stay in the workforce you can keep progressing. Life is long and maybe if you become a senior manager at 55 instead of 50, it’s okay. I think the key is to rejoin the workforce, even if it’s part-time, not too long after having a baby/babies. Years out of the workforce put you back a long way.

    • That makes great sense to me. But if we can find a way to make workplaces more family-friendly for women AND men, perhaps we can make some progress. Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment!

  19. Such a thought-provoking post. I consider myself lucky because I don’t want to have kids. That may sound harsh, but the fact of the matter is, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to raise a family and pursue my career at the same time. Numerous friends of mine seem to accomplish both with success, but I know it takes a tremendous toll.

    And we are judged regardless of our choices—my sister, for working while her husband stays at home with their kids, a close friend for hiring a nanny, and me, on occasion, for not desiring children. It’s an exciting time for women, I believe, thanks to the incredible amount of opportunities available to us. It’s also a tough time, for the same reason.

    • Exactly. And that doesn’t sound harsh to me at all – that sounds liberating! If you know that you don’t want children, that can simplifiy so many things!! Thanks fso much or reading, following and taking time to comment!

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  21. I know as women, we have a long way to haul to achieve gender equality, but for now I would settle for a longer FMLA. Say 26 weeks! Great Post!

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  23. Great post! (BTW: I found you via Truth and Cake! Woo-hoo) So many ways to look at this and I don’t think there is just one single reason why women aren’t advancing at the levels that men do. But for sure, I agree with that it is a myth that women can have it all, and then if they don’t the problem is that there is something wrong with them. Nobody can have it all, not even men. Every choice has a counter default choice. Men, on the average, choose career over family more than women, and consequently they advance faster and higher. But the affects of that choice might be less family connection, but that is hard to see. Women do tend to take less credit for their work and men often take more. I think we have all seen work situations where one person has the title, but the true leader, the one with the vision, ideas are quietly in the background. Most often that’s the woman. Before I had kids I worked a stressful newspaper career as a reporter and later an editor. No way could I keep that up after my children were born so I stayed home for 15 years and then renentered the work force in a related, but less demanding field. Do I regret it? No, I had a great experience as a stay at home mom and am closely connected with my young adult kids. Did I miss out career opportunities. Yes. But in the balance of life and work, I glad I invested in people and not a position. I think society has gotten better at helping to balance, but we are far from perfect. Still lots of work ahead. Thanks for a forum to discuss.

    • Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comment. I think many young women could learn from all the women who have had to make hard choices over the past 20-30 years. I think most women have a story to share about how they have handled this. I really appreciate the comment. Thank you so much reading!

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