Women Continue to Lag Behind Men in Leadership Roles

Higher standards, family responsibilities among reasons women fail to reach C-suite

By By Aliah D. Wright February 20, 2015

Although women outnumber men when it comes to finishing college and both genders believe that women make better managers, women continue to trail far behind men in becoming leaders.

It’s not that women aren’t tough enough or that they don’t make good managers, according to Women and Leadership, a study by the Pew Research Center conducted in 2014 and released this year.

Instead, the reasons for this occurrence are perception and gender discrimination.

According to the research, “most Americans find women indistinguishable from men on key leadership traits such as intelligence and capacity for innovation, with many saying they’re stronger than men in terms of being compassionate and organized leaders.” Yet, four in 10 Americans said there is a double standard for women who want to climb into the upper echelons of management because they “have to do more than their male counterparts in order to prove themselves.” The study, in which 1,835 Americans were polled, has a margin of error of 2.4 percentage points.

What’s more, Americans believe “women are every bit as capable” of dominating the boardroom as men; however, “52 percent of women believe they are held to a higher standard than men, compared to 33 percent of men who believe the same thing.”

More Champions at the Gate

Nearly 40 percent of those surveyed by Pew believe that once more women are in executive positions, the quality of life for all working women will improve because women are thought to be better at being honest and ethical, providing fair pay and benefits, mentoring employees and negotiating profitable deals, and are also considered more willing to take risks.

Forty percent of respondents said women who want to reach a top position in business are better off waiting to have children until later in their careers. One in five said women who want to excel shouldn’t have children at all.

According to Pew, “women have made significant gains in educational attainment in recent decades, better positioning themselves not only for career success but also for leadership positions.”

Today, there are 26 women working as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. In 1995 there were none, Pew pointed out. Additional studies reveal that though women today are better educated than men, they still lag behind in pay. According to a report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers released in October, “Today young women are more likely than young men to be college graduates or have a graduate degree. Yet, women earn 78 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts.”

In the Pew study, 65 percent of women and 48 percent of men say women are far more likely to be discriminated against based on their gender.

Confidence Can Help Women Succeed

Experts interviewed by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) said breaking the glass ceiling isn’t about being better educated or putting off childbearing. It’s about being more confident.

In her coaching practice, leadership expert Carol Sankar, author of the forthcoming book The Confidence Factor for Women in Business,told SHRM Online that women need to be more aggressive about seeking “mentorship rather than support.”

“Support groups tend to give us the tissue to wipe our tears while mentorship will allow us to gain the strength to lead with purpose. Women must learn the difference,” Sankar said.

“Success is a mindset,” added Jacqueline Chafe, an account executive from data analytics company 44ounces. “A lot of women still don’t see themselves as intelligent leaders,” she said, in large part “because of how they’re portrayed in the media. This happens at an early age, so a lot of women grow up without that confidence. However, times are changing and it isn’t such a strange notion for women to excel in leadership roles and become CEOs or women in charge. It has a lot to do with the confidence factor and teaching at an early age that it’s great to be innovative.”

Another reason why more men than women may excel in the boardroom is due to unconscious bias.

“[A] fear factor drives many executive decisions regarding hiring and promotions,” Lorenzo G. Flores, Ph.D., told SHRM Online. Flores is author of Executive Career Advancement: How to Understand the Politics of Promotion The X Factor, (Authorhouse, 2009).

“Male executives find it hard to move out of their comfort zone. They prefer people who remind them of themselves.”

One thing that could help is better educating people on the politics of career advancement, which Flores said means pre-positioning “yourself for promotions by … identifying the external and internal politics which drive the executive agenda. This requires the ability to blend hard work with the art of playing with appearances, emotions and words.”

Those wanting to get ahead should find mentors who are in a position to help elevate their careers, he added. “Extraordinary mentors provide you with ‘real life’ insights into the dynamics of power and politics; audacious mentors are top-level executives who push for your promotion to the top,” he said. “Unfortunately, many C-level executives prefer to handpick their protégés.”

Insecurity about taking on leadership roles isn’t unique to either gender, one expert added.

“We all need to stop obsessing about seeing everything in terms of gender lines and recognize that insecurities about leadership plague both genders and vary vastly between individuals,” said Ola Rogula, founder and CEO of entertainment website Doll Divine. “The school system is built around submitting to authority—even into university. The key for anyone is to participate in more activities which have leadership opportunities. This could mean apprenticeships, jobs, volunteering opportunities and entrepreneurships.”

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.

Are you a department of one?

Expand your toolbox with the tools and techniques needed to fix your organization’s unique needs.

Expand your toolbox with the tools and techniques needed to fix your organization’s unique needs.



HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.