In recent weeks, over 120 women (including 45 who identify as women of color) reported to their posts in the 116th United States Congress and 9 became state governors (including 1 who is trans-identified) in a midterm election where more women ran and won than any other time in history. Does this significant increase in representation across government leadership positions mean women have finally arrived in leadership? Should we expect this rise to continue?
“I am running for office because I believe I can improve the lives of ordinary people. . .” - Jana Sanchez
Let’s first understand why more women decided to run. Whether it be in political arenas or within other organizations, women’s motives for pursuing leadership are often different than men’s. Women do not necessarily pursue leadership positions as part of a prescribed career trajectory that, in most cases, maintains the organization’s status quo. Women are dissatisfied with the exclusionary and inequitable nature of the status quo and seek substantive change; Change that reflects their values and positively impacts the daily lives of all of their community’s members. Media reports of women candidates confirm this shared motivation. When running for her district’s congressional office, Jana Sanchez wrote, “I am running for office because I believe I can improve the lives of ordinary people. . .”.
Without question, women’s desire for change, and an increased sense of self-efficacy for leading change, has helped our ascent into leadership. Statistics suggest, however, that many barriers still exist. With proportional representation as a central goal, (women are represented in leadership at the same percentage in which they are represented within the organization’s total population) women should represent roughly 50% of the government’s leadership positions. Yet, women represent only 20% of Congress, 25% of state legislatures, and 12% of the governorships. Similarly, only 5% of Fortune 500 companies are led by women. Systemic barriers prohibiting proportional representation in government, business and in other fields include stereotypical misperceptions, inadequate support systems, and resistant gate-keepers.
As a result (and despite their talent) women must continuously fight feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy.
By focusing in on women specifically (without consideration of other intersecting identities such as race, or sexual identity, for example) three primary, stereotypical misperceptions emerge. All three have suppressed the rise of women in leadership. First, many of those appointing or voting for leaders believe that strong, effective leadership demands certain characteristics; for example: dominance, aggressiveness, and competitiveness. Second is the perception that women don’t possess these qualities and therefore are not qualified to lead. Both of these perceptions are problematic with research concluding that strong, transformational leadership actually requires a set of qualities and skills that straddle and extend beyond both of the stereotypical categories for men and women leaders including, but not limited to: emotional intelligence, ethical decision-making, confidence, communication, a deep understanding of the change process, and the ability to connect people with a shared purpose toward the collective good. The third misperception is often the most influential and originates from within women themselves. Women, too, have been socialized to believe the stereotype that they are indeed less capable of leading than men. As a result (and despite their talent) women must continuously fight feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy.
Although many women are prepared to serve as leaders, they are prohibited from entering or maintaining positions of leadership because they do not have a support system to help them successfully balance their personal life with their professional (leadership) life. Women are unlikely to take or maintain leadership positions if the balance is unachievable. This is particularly true of women who want to have a leadership career in addition to children. The reality of leadership is that it often requires long hours, increased travel, and an inconsistent schedule. Couple this with the traditional expectation that women, as mothers, must bear most of the responsibilities associated with childcare, and the likelihood for a successful career in leadership diminishes. In my case, I have a supportive husband whose job has some schedule flexibility allowing him to share the responsibilities of our home and our children. He often shoulders more responsibility when my job demands it. It is no exaggeration to say I couldn’t have both a strong family and a successful leadership career without his support and help from child-care providers which we are fortunate enough to afford. Could it be that women as policy leaders will sponsor and enact legislation that will create the necessary infrastructure (e.g. paid maternity and paternity leave of sufficient duration, job-sharing, flexible work plans, and quality childcare including preschool and afterschool programs) that women (and men) need in order to have both?
Although these reinforcements will provide women with much needed access to the leadership pipeline, we must also recognize and address the male-dominated culture that persists within organizations--even when women serve as leaders within these organizations. This situation often makes the already challenging task of leadership more difficult as women are forced to navigate sexual harassment, unconscious bias, microaggressions, and/or discrimination exerted by those around them.
Many of the gatekeepers to leadership positions are white, privileged, able-bodied, hetero-sexual males who value deeply, the present, patriarchal system from which they benefit. They have no interest in disrupting the status quo or sharing power. Quite the opposite: they strive to maintain dominance and actively resist reform efforts that result in an equitable distribution of power across leaders of identities outside their own. Although this essay examines the inclusion of women in leadership, shouldn’t leadership proportionally represent all of us including those who don’t identify within the binary construct of gender (e.g. gender non-conforming, a-gender, etc.), people of color, people who are differently abled, the LGBTQ+ community, and people representing lower and middle socioeconomic levels?
So, have women leaders finally arrived? Not yet. BUT, we are definitely closer. In this piece, I chose to highlight continued barriers to the proportional representation of women in leadership so that we know what we’re up against and where to focus the efforts aimed at overcoming the challenges. We can increase our awareness of, and work to eliminate external and internal stereotypical misperceptions. We can build support systems that ensure women access to leadership positions, as well as, sustainability within those positions, once achieved. We can question and dismantle dominant ideologies in pursuit of shared power and governance. And finally, let us not forget to recognize and share the research supported benefits of women in leadership to compel our continued rise. Across organizations, women leaders are associated with: an increase in diversity of thought which improves collective decision making and problem solving while reducing “group think”; improved collaboration and negotiation across employees; greater creativity; increased productivity; and a prioritization toward equitable and ethical policies and practices that impact employees personally and professionally (e.g. equal pay, paid and sufficient maternity leave). These benefits can lead to outcomes that positively impact all of us: supportive organizational climates with working conditions that encourage us to do our very best work, increased revenue which can result in higher salaries, and an improved work-life balance. Given that women are still underrepresented in governmental leadership positions, the outcomes associated with their positions (legislative policies and resulting practices) have not been fully realized. However, the National Democratic Institute (a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to democracy around the world) contends, “. . . evidence is strong that as more women are elected, countries experience higher standards of living; the priorities of families, women and minorities are addressed; and confidence in democracy goes up.”
This should not be a zero-sum game where the only possible outcome is the achievement of dominance by either men or women. Women are not interested in the hoarding of power, privilege, or opportunity for themselves. Women (and many men) want to see the continued rise of women in leadership so that they may work in organizations and live in communities where their values are represented, respected, and realized.
Dr. Jess Weiler is an Assistant Professor and the Program Director for the Educational Leadership program in the College of Education and Allied Professions at Western Carolina University (WCU), a UNC System school.
Dr. Weiler received her bachelor's and master's degrees in communication sciences and disorders from St. Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri.
She worked as a speech-language pathologist and educator in both healthcare and educational settings throughout southern California before moving to Wisconsin where she served as a clinical and adjunct instructor at UW-Milwaukee, in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.
Dr. Weiler completed her doctoral degree in educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
After moving to Asheville, NC, where she presently resides, she worked as a high school administrator before moving to her present position at WCU. Her research and publications focus on school and district leadership for system-wide equity and leadership competence for equitable and socially just schools.