Women and Leadership – the Missing Link

The following essay was co-authored by Deborah L. Rhode. She is Ernest McFarland Professor of Law at Stanford University and the author of, among other books, What Women Want.

The number of American women at or near the top of the greasy pole has remained stubbornly low. Of course the figure is higher than it was, say, twenty years ago. But the so-called pipeline has proved a pipe dream – the rate of change remaining sluggish at best. A single example: to equalize men and women’s representation in the U.S. Congress would take more than a hundred years!

In part a response to the problem of women’s advancement, recent surveys of younger, millennial women indicate a new trend. They are more likely than their predecessors to plan to interrupt their careers for family reasons. This change suggests two strong, apparently contradictory dynamics relating to women and leadership.

On the one hand has been considerable progress for women in middle and upper management. Many employers have instituted workplace policies specifically intended to help women climb the managerial ladder. They include flextime; part time; job-sharing; telecommuting; mentoring; sponsoring; coaching; networking; expanded parental leave; and a range of other cultural and contextual supports.

On the other hand young women appear to have concluded that in spite of signs of progress, their situation remains untenable. In their struggle to achieve a measure of work-life balance they – women ages 18 to 30 – plan to play a different game. They intend to adapt to what is, rather than to fight a system that they see as rigged. They consciously are deviating from the Gen X and Boomer women who preceded them, who either struggled to do it all, or who in countless cases dropped out of the paid work force altogether. Instead the millennials are being strategic, deciding that they might need, perhaps prefer, to sequence stages of their lives in order to be both professionally successful and personally satisfied. Of course, whether this intention will enable women of this generation to ascend in growing numbers to positions of leadership remains to be seen. For now all we know is that a high number regard what preceded them as unsatisfactory, which is why they’re choosing to chart a new course.

This raises the following questions. Why is it that women’s expectations have declined, or at least changed, much more than men’s? (Only 66% of women say they expect their careers to be the equivalent of their spouses. In 2012 only 42% of female students graduating from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania said they planned on having a child.) Why is it women much more than men who are always having to adapt to what they perceive to be the reality? Why is it women who are much less likely than men to be in positions of leadership, not only now but also for the indefinite future?

These questions have often been asked and then answered in ways that are socially acceptable and politically correct. But they have not been answered fully or even entirely honestly – which is one of the reasons why the situation has stayed static.

As it stands now, there are three standard explanations for why we are where we were. The first is women themselves. They are too passive, too circumspect. If they aspire to lead they must be proactive, they have to lean in. The second is the nature of the workplace. It is too rigid, inhospitable to the demands of a family or the wish to lead a balanced life. The third is the so-called male leadership model – the 24/7 leadership model. It is too all-consuming, impossible for women who must, or perhaps prefer, to accommodate the other demands on their time.

These explanations are not incorrect. But they are insufficient. They do not take into account the most simple, yet most powerful, of all explicators: nature. It is women not men who carry children from conception to birth. And it is women not men who breast feed. We find it hard to believe that these gender-based differences – physiological and psychological – have no bearing whatsoever on the perennial problem of getting more women to exercise leadership.

This brings us to how to address these gender-based differences, which obviously are innate. Part of the answer is to make temporarily opting out of the paid labor force less costly. In the Center for Work Life Policy’s survey of some 2400 high achieving professionals, 89 percent wanted at some point to resume their careers, but 25 percent of those who wished to return were unable to do so, and only 40 percent found full-time professional jobs. It’s why Netflix’s recently announced policy of allowing new parents – father as well as mother – unlimited time off during their baby’s first year is so welcome.

Still, we are under no illusions. Getting new parents to take extended periods of time away from the workplace is not easy. Men even more than women worry that a prolonged absence, no matter how valid the reason, will impede their careers. But putting such policies in place is a necessary step. Equally necessary or maybe more is finally saying loud and finally saying clear that carrying a child for nine months – not to speak of probably breast feeding it – just might have implications for whatever is subsequent.*


*In 2013, 77 percent of new American mothers breast fed their children.

Note: Due to other commitments, I will not be posting any new blogs for about two weeks.


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