The Science

A 2017 Pew Research study found that, while few Americans see a major difference between men and women’s abilities to lead, most can identify significant barriers preventing women from exercising those leadership qualities in both business and politics. Most respondents said that the world is “not ready” to elect or hire females for leadership roles and holds them to higher standards than men when they run or interview for these positions. Other reasons included that women are too busy with familial responsibilities, that women are not tough enough, or that men are simply better leaders.

Another study found that both men and women typically associate females with fear, guilt, shame and sadness – four emotions that correlate with bad leadership. When the study spoke of “female managers” rather than simply “females,” people assigned them fewer of these emotions. When people think of the word “manager,” they immediately think of a man — they will only think of a woman in a leadership position when they think of a “female manager.”

In other words, men are assumed to have good leadership qualities inherently, but women have to prove that they do, too.

We can observe these trends when we examine women’s roles in business and government.

The Problem

Today, women make up only 14.6 percent of business executives, and only 26 women are now serving as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies — roughly 5 percent. Fewer than half (44 percent) of Americans believe that women will eventually hold as many executive positions as men.

In mid-level management, only about a quarter of managers are women; the fact that women are more accepted in positions of lower responsibility is a trend that holds from field to field.

We even see this in media portrayal of female managers and leaders. Men are far more likely to be cast as doctors, lawyers, and business leaders in movies and television and are usually characterized as goal-oriented and capable. When females assume leadership roles in movies, they’re subject to stereotypes such as either a cute, ditzy, unsure girl struggling to succeed or a cold, manipulative, “bitchy” woman who intimidates rather than leads. (Think “Legally Blonde” vs. “The Proposal.”)

“Female characters are less likely than males to have identifiable goals or to be portrayed as leaders of any kind,” says researcher Martha Lauzen about her studies on women’s portrayal in the entertainment industry.

When it comes to politics, 56 of the 146 nations (38 percent) studied by the World Economic Forum in 2014 and 2016 have had a female head of government or state for at least one year in the last 50 years. In 31 of these countries, women have led for five years or less; in 10 nations, they have led for only a year. At least 13 others have had female leaders hold office for less than a year. In the United States, however, the supposed land of equality, a woman has never been president. 73 percent of Americans expect to see that glass ceiling broken in their lifetimes.

For now, women make up only 20 percent of the Senate and 19.3 percent of the House and comprise only 18.8% of mayors in cities with a population above 30,000. (For the Senate and House seats, that’s actually a record high.) There are currently only six women serving as a governor, however; only 37 women have ever served as governor across the United States, and only 27 states have ever had a woman governor.

Most Americans, though, see very little difference between men’s and women’s abilities to accomplish critical tasks in the political and business realms. Only slight gaps exist: 34 percent see female politicians as better at working out compromises than their male counterparts (only 9 percent think men are better). Women are also perceived as more honest and ethical: 34 percent say women are better at this, and 3 percent say men are. Men, conversely, are thought to be better at risk-taking — 34 percent say men are better, and 5 percent say women are — and negotiating profitable deals (18 percent for men, 7 for women).

So it isn’t that people don’t think women can succeed, and it isn’t that women always get crushed when they run for office: women have proven that they can raise money and win elections at comparable, if not higher, rates than men, and Hillary Clinton won 48.5 percent of the vote in the 2016 presidential election.

Then what’s the problem? It’s that women aren’t running.

The Cause

While it doesn’t help that 9 percent of Americans said that they would be less likely to vote for a female political candidate, sexism among voters isn’t the major hindrance keeping women from positions of power as one might assume. According to Politico’s Women Rule investigation, which analyzed why so few women run, it stems from the way society conditions males and females to think of themselves differently in terms of their intelligence and leadership qualities. Like many societal issues, it all starts in childhood.

Parental encouragement and involvement in sports are two major factors that help increase the likelihood that a student will run for office later in life. Women who played sports were 25 percent more likely to exhibit political aspirations, and 44 percent of female students who reported wanting to run someday had played junior varsity or varsity sports. Half of college students whose parents (especially their mothers) encouraged them to do so said that they would “definitely like to run in the future,” while only 3 percent who did not receive parental encouragement said the same. This suggests that the team-building and leadership roles that come with playing on a sports team, as well as support from one’s family, help build confidence.

Low confidence is a major issue for women when it comes to assuming leadership positions, and that typically starts even earlier in childhood: boys and girls as young as six were found in a study this year to associate phrases such as “brilliant” and “really, really smart” with males rather than females. Girls were also more likely to view themselves as “trying really hard” than as “really smart.”(On the bright side, girls were also more likely than boys of the same age to understand that one’s grades in school don’t always correlate with true intelligence.) Just a year earlier, at the age of five, girls didn’t make this distinction and were likely to view both boys and girls are smart. This indicates that society teaches us that intelligence and success are masculine at such a young age that it’s hard to break through the barrier and un-learn this damaging falsehood later in life.

Media, such as the aforementioned movies and other sources with implicit messages encouraging girls to focus on beauty and boys rather than politics and personal growth, continues to keep girls’ confidence low as they grow up. Girls are less likely to take harder classes and to pursue more innovative fields or loftier goals within their eventual careers — and that lack of confidence started in kindergarten.

In high school, boys and girls are still almost equally likely to report political aspirations, and college-aged men and women report being encouraged to run for student government at nearly equal rates, but family and friends were far more likely to encourage men to consider running for office later in life. This suggests that people are less likely to encourage females than males to aim for real positions of power — likely because men are assumed to be better leaders.

In college, men become more confident in their political abilities, but women less so: only a third of high school girls reported doubting their ability to run for office at any point, but half of college women did. Male students are also more likely to engage in political discussions with friends or visit political websites and are almost twice as likely to join political organizations on their campuses.

Post graduation, women and men in careers such as business, law, education, and politics or activism were almost equally likely to have had relevant political experience, but still only 57 percent of these women felt as though they were “qualified” or “very qualified” to run for office, compared to 73 percent of men. When women are recruited by political organizers, they respond just as positively as men, but just as college-aged men are more likely to receive encouragement, more men post-graduation report being encouraged by those around them.

The only political arena with nearly equal gender representation is the local school board, which not only demonstrates women’s ability to lead but also suggests that, just as women are accepted in low-level management positions but not in executive roles and college-aged girls are encouraged to run for student government but not to get involved in real-world politics, women are accepted in low-level government and leadership positions but discouraged from assuming more power.

However, this limited area of experience in which women are generally supported also provides a place for recruiters to tap into female talent and expand representation when they realize that female voices in politics would have a positive impact on our society. According to the Politico piece, “Recruiting women from local school boards, parent-teacher associations and other offices below the county level would be the easiest place for party leaders to continue to close the gap at higher levels of office, according to a 2008 nationwide survey of county party leaders. Most county party leaders of both parties already recruit among sub-county officeholders, but are far less likely to recruit among education and child-related networks—precisely where they would find the most women with untapped political potential.”

The Solution

Aside from looking to better places to recruit women and encouraging kids of any gender as they grow up, reform in the educational system can also help change girls’ minds about themselves and their abilities, which would pay off for the rest of their development.

Rebecca S. Bigler, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, found that girls’ perceptions of themselves as less intelligent or less likely to succeed than boys develop in elementary school, between the ages of 6 and 7. It’s likely exacerbated not only by the media we consume but also by studying famous scientists, writers, and innovators in school: “the ‘geniuses’ of history, who are overwhelmingly men.” She calls for explaining to kids that the lack of female representation isn’t because women are less capable of influencing the world and becoming trailblazers of their fields, but because they have historically not been allowed to pursue or retain credit for such accomplishments.

“We need to explain to children that laws were created specifically to prevent women from becoming great scientists, artists, composers, writers, explorers, and leaders,” Bigler added. “Children will then be … more likely to believe in their own intellectual potential and contribute to social justice and [equality] by pursuing these careers themselves.”

Several organizations also exist to help reach out to, encourage, and educate women when it comes to political involvement:

She Should Run: “Founded in 2011, She Should Run is a non-partisan 501(c)3 that provides an approachable starting place and network for women leaders considering a future run for office and for those who support them. Our mission is to expand the talent pool of women running for office in the United States by providing community, resources, and growth opportunities for aspiring political leaders. We believe that women of all political leanings, ethnicities, and backgrounds should have an equal opportunity to lead in elected office and that our democracy will benefit from the varied perspectives and experiences that women bring to leadership. We know that when women run for office they win at the same rates as men. Yet women are not encouraged and recruited at the same rate as men.” She Should Run is currently working on their #250kBy2030 campaign in an effort to inspire 250k women to run for public office by the year 2030.

Emerge America: “Emerge America is changing the face of politics by recruiting, training, and providing a powerful network for Democratic women to run for office. Since our founding in 2005, we have expanded the Emerge program into 22 states … and trained over 2,500 women. Emerge America gives Democratic women who want to run for public office a unique opportunity. We are the only in-depth, six-month, 70-hour, training program providing aspiring female leaders with cutting-edge tools and training to run for elected office and elevate themselves in our political system. Emerge America’s role is to serve the states where we work, open new state programs and build capacity to train more women in each of our current states. We provide our program’s alumnae with a strong, supportive network of women in politics, which includes a national association of Emerge alumnae, the Emerge board and advisory council member.”

National Federation of Republican Women: “Founded in 1938, the NFRW is one of the largest grassroots political organizations in the country with thousands of active members in local clubs across the nation. We empower women from all backgrounds in the political process and provide a forum for women to serve as leaders in the political, government, and civic arenas. …  In addition to classroom-style instruction, the Federation has produced recruitment and training manuals, guides, kits and booklets on a regular basis. In the 1950s, the Federation published a bold and persuasive manual — ‘Consider Yourself’ — that encouraged women to think of themselves, not just men, as potential candidates. Republicans used the manual for several decades. Throughout its history, the Federation also has offered leadership training programs that have played an indirect — but significant — part in preparing women for roles in government.