I’m sick of hearing how far we’ve come. I’m sick of hearing how much better situated we are now than before. I’m sick of hearing how women are closing the gaps (in health outcomes, educational attainment, and economic participation), how in some cases women are superseding men, and how in the present more than in the past women are progressing to positions of middle and upper management. Above all I’m sick of hearing about the pipeline, about the path to the top supposedly thick with women who will, in the fullness of time, be rewarded for their patience and virtue.
The fact is that so far as leadership is concerned women in nearly every realm are nearly nowhere — hardly any better off than they were a generation ago. The following figures, from the American experience, speak for themselves.
3% of Fortune 500 companies are headed by women (2009).
6 % of the 100 top tech companies are headed by women (2010).
15 % of members of Fortune 500 boards are women (2009).
16.8% of members of the U. S. Congress are women (2010).
14.5% of 249 mayors of U. S. cities with populations over 100,000 are women (2010).
21% of nonprofits with budgets greater than $25 million are headed by women (2010).
5% of generals in the U.S. Army are women (2008).
8% of admirals in the U. S. Navy are women (2009).
7% of tenured engineering faculty in four-year institutions are women (2010).
19 % of senior faculty at the Harvard Business School are women (2009-10).
All ten Princeton University eating-club presidents are men (2010).
This does not, of course, mean that there is no improvement whatsoever. Rather it is to point out how abysmally low the numbers remain, a decade into the 21st century. (In some cases, the figures are worse than before. In 2009 the percentage of women holding statewide elective office was 22.6. Ten years earlier it was 27.6.)
Even more disheartening, dismaying even, is the personal price women pay for professional success. While not every woman does, or should, want a partner and/or a child, again the statistics are significant.
54% of women executives are childless vs. 29% of men (2007).
33% of women executives are unmarried vs. 18% of men (2007).
The data confirm a conclusion as inescapable as irrefutable: so far as leadership in America is concerned, men still rule. Moreover in those relatively rare circumstances when women do reach the top, the costs they incur are more likely to be high.
In recent years it’s become very clear that diversity matters. It’s good for people and for performance as well — which means we have a nefarious problem without an obvious solution. Solutions have been suggested, of course; quite a few in fact. They range from institutional development to individual development; from changing the culture of the workplace to changing the structure of the workplace; from providing time off, to part time to flex time; from shifting housekeeping from women to men, and childcare from mother to father; from imposing mandatory quotas to suggesting voluntary quotas; from grandiose remedies such as an overarching top-down commitment to gender diversity, to more modest ones, hypothetically, accessible to all, including mentoring, networking, and career coaching.
But for various reasons the various solutions have fallen short. Some, such as mentoring, networking, simply can’t cut it, at least not to a significant, sufficient degree. Others, such as family friendly policies, are unlikely in themselves to be effective. Still others, for example quotas, are socially and politically unpalatable, at least in the U.S. And, finally, some, including educational reform, public policy, and political action are simply too ambitious if not downright fanciful to have any bearing on the here and now. Put another way, for all the politically correct hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing, at the macro-level the problem of women and leadership has so far resisted even the best of intentions.
What, then, is to be done? How to address a problem that in the U.S. should be considered intractable — at least to those of us unwilling to wait? (In “Letter from Birmingham Jail” Martin Luther King wrote, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’…. This ‘Wait!’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”)
I am not delusional. There will be no social movement to advance the cause of women ambitious to get to the top.
But what could create change at a rate other than painfully slow is this: a different mindset. Women and men must own the problem. They must acknowledge, openly, that the paucity of women leaders is equity denied. They must admit, openly, that equity denied is expensive — socially, politically, and economically. They must speak to the issue loudly and publicly and often. They must address it consciously and with deliberate forethought.
They must stop touting “gains” so long as these gains remain meager. (In March a New York Times headline read, “Women Making Gains on Faculty at Harvard,” which, while technically accurate, was nevertheless misleading. In 2009 women at Harvard held only 21% of full professorships.). They must, whenever and wherever they are able, aggressively administer corrective measures involving, simultaneously, institutions and individuals. They must, whenever and wherever they are able to do so, initiate change from the top, and also from the middle, and from the bottom. And, finally, both women and men must make it socially and politically, professionally and personally, unacceptable to tolerate significant imbalance.
A 2007 McKinsey report titled “Women Matter” concluded that the companies that “perform best” are those “where women are most strongly represented at board or top-management level.” However it went on to acknowledge that, “as things stand, change will come only very slowly.” The solution suggested was to change the modern model of leadership which, by requiring “unfailing availability and total geographical mobility,” is now “male-oriented.” Four “best practices” were provided: implement gender diversity, facilitate the work-life balance, adapt the human resources management process, and help women nurture their ambition by helping them to “master the dominant code.”
All well and good. How to argue against the conclusion that women make a difference, and for the better, or against a set of suggestions both sensible and well-intended? Still, if past is prologue, this will not suffice — at least not for those without the patience of Job. In fact it’s precisely this kind of incremental thinking that yields incremental change — instead of a critical mass.
The modern women’s movement is almost a half century old. But so far as women leaders are concerned, we have precious little to show for it. We, women and men, remain largely ignorant of the dismal statistics, complacent instead in the certainty that things are getting better. But the sad truth is that so long as equity remains a concern as opposed to a cause, so long will women who want to lead have an albatross on their back.
This article first appeared as part of a blog-post series on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, on April 27, 2010. Barbara Kellerman is the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and was the founding executive director of the Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership. She is also a member of BYLC’s Advisory Board.