Nor are such imbalances improving; in most areas, women’s advancement has flatlined in recent years. “I think we are stuck in the muck,” says Kathryn Kolbert, director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard. “We made great progress on the rights front in the 1970’s, and life has changed significantly, but progress for women has plateaued in rights, in leadership, and in the ability to contribute equally in social and cultural affairs.”
The recession further undermined many efforts to develop women’s leadership, particularly in the corporate world, where diversity initiatives were often seen as an optional luxury whose budgets were the first to be slashed when financial cutbacks were imposed. “With the economic downturn, it has become okay not to focus on practices and invest in programs that support women,” says Linda Basch, president of the National Council for Research on Women.
Despite such setbacks, many people assume that women are flourishing. Much attention has been given to the fact that younger women now outnumber men in earning college and graduate school degrees, but for most, such advantages prove short-lived. “Women enter the work force with relatively better credentials than men, which is especially true for women of color, and yet you’re not seeing comparable progress as they move forward in their careers,” says Rhode, director of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession.
Women’s ongoing failure to attain leadership positions can no longer be blamed on a lack of qualified candidates in the professional pipeline that ultimately limits the executive talent pool; even when women are abundantly represented in a given field, they rarely manage to reach the top levels of management. “In the financial services industry, 57 percent of the workers are women—but only 1.5 percent of the CEO’s are female,” says Mary Quist-Newins, an assistant professor at The American College, the nation’s largest non-profit educational institution for financial services.
Frustrated by the obstacles to advancing at a rate commensurate with their abilities, women leave the corporate world in disproportionate numbers, and many go on to create alternative opportunities elsewhere. “Women start businesses at two times the rate that men do,” says Quist-Newins, the author of a new study on women business owners.
Within established institutions, however, the stubborn persistence of striking gender gaps has discouraged longtime activists, many of whom find it a growing struggle to remain hopeful. “What I said for many years was ‘incremental change, slow and steady,’” says Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute for Politics at Rutgers University. “There is a vast change in the way men and women think of themselves and each other and in the way we think of leadership, and that does not happen overnight. People who occupy places of power don’t just stand aside because another group wants power.”
But even resolute optimists like Mandel were alarmed by recent signs that women’s failure to progress might have shifted into reverse; after years of agonizingly slow progress, the number of women in office declined slightly in the last election, sparking fears that women have actually begun going backward.
The erosion of previous gains extends far beyond politics. “Last year 95 percent of the top-grossing films were directed by men; the number directed by women has decreased since 1998,” says Melissa Silverstein, founder of the blog Women and Hollywood, which tracks women’s participation in the industry. “Only four women have been nominated for best director in 84 years of Academy Awards, and only one has won. Film is such an important piece of the culture, but Hollywood is very boy-centric, and this means that our world is seen through a white man’s perspective. Most of the movies being green-lit are action-adventure, sci-fi or superhero movies—and the men want to hire their friends. There’s a perception that things are great for women—Angelina Jolie directs a film!—but the reality is that we haven’t improved at all; the numbers are stagnating or decreasing.”
Among this year’s Academy Award nominations, 98 percent were given to movies directed by men, 84 percent went to movies written by men, and 70 percent to movies starring men. In the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as elsewhere in American society, the important decisions continue to be made by men: 77 percent of Oscar voters are male.
Whatever the arena, analysts cite various reasons why women’s progress has stalled in recent years, starting with a backlash to the previous period of rapid social evolution. “Classically speaking, resistance to change comes at two points,” Gloria Steinem explains. “The first is right in the beginning, when you break the rules and people say, ‘No, women can’t do that!’ And the second comes when you reach a critical mass, because then the dominant group thinks, ‘Wait a minute!’ Up until then, it hasn’t seemed as if the other group might have great influence or, in the case of women, might actually outnumber them. We’re now at the second stage of resistance.”
From Wall Street and corporate boardrooms to Capitol Hill and the entertainment industry, men in positions of authority have proved noticeably disinclined to make a priority of power-sharing. “It’s partly that they worry about what happens if we get to critical mass or even a majority: ‘Suppose they do to us what we’ve done to them?’” Steinem says. “In a normal male-female relationship, fifty-fifty is very scary, because masculinity has been defined as being in control.”
Social scientists studying the barriers to women’s advancement have identified several major problem areas. “The reasons have to do with unconscious bias, the persistence of exclusionary networks and opportunities, and work-family barriers,” says Rhode. “While we’ve made enormous progress in encouraging women to assume traditional men’s roles, we haven’t made comparable progress in encouraging men to take on traditional women’s roles. You still find men much less likely to take time out of the work force to assume primary responsibility for child care, elder care and dealing with emergencies. Even high-achieving women are still assuming the major responsibility in the home for family, and that limits their progress in the world outside the family.”
The result is a vicious circle in which women are prevented from full participation in the larger world by the absence of policies that would support their participation, and those policies are not enacted because men in power don’t give them priority and there aren’t enough women in leadership roles to effect real change.
“We have less parental leave, less sick leave, and less child care than Europe; we’re much worse off than any modern democracy,” Steinem points out. “American exceptionalism turns out to mean that we’re the only advanced democracy without a work pattern that accommodates parents in the work force. What women are saying is, ‘I can’t do it all. It’s impossible, because the culture hasn’t changed enough.’”
Other barriers include the unequal ways that women are socialized and that gender roles are enforced. Even women with stellar credentials often lack the confidence to put themselves forward, while men with far inferior qualifications show no such hesitation, according to research across a broad range of fields, including politics. Polling data and social science research have also documented a pervasive double standard that consistently penalizes women for traits that are rewarded in men, as when assertive women are judged as bitchy or shrill while assertive men are admired for their strength as leaders.
But an increased understanding of such challenges has also led to a proliferating array of efforts to overcome them. “There is absolutely nothing divinely ordained about someone who is a leader; any woman can learn to lead,” says Charlotte Beers, a former advertising CEO and former Undersecretary of State under Colin Powell. The author of I’d Rather Be in Charge, a new book about women’s leadership, Beers also teaches leadership skills to executive women from the United States and Europe.
“I’m convinced that there are more women ready and able than we’ve ever seen, and they’re right at the threshold of becoming major partners in every kind of leadership,” Beers says. “It’s just a matter of preparing them. The environment is ruthless, competitive, and can be very mean-spirited, and women are blindsided by it; it’s very different than anything anyone has prepared them for. Men have been combating and winning all their lives, in sports and in roughhousing. The whole concept of winning is very comfortable for men — but for women, it means somebody’s being left out. Just yesterday, you were being rewarded for being a collaborative team leader, and now you’re expected to step out and fight alone and combat personal attacks. Women are on the cusp, but it will take a different kind of training to cross that threshold than you got in university or than you get when you’re working.”
Such preparation can make a decisive difference. Katie Hobbs, a 42-year-old social worker and mother of two who lives in Phoenix, was lobbying on domestic violence issues at the Arizona state capital when she got “frustrated by how the process worked,” she says. “I’d think, ‘Those lawmakers don’t know what they’re doing—they don’t understand how this affects real people’s lives!’”
And yet she demurred when a colleague suggested she apply to Emerge America, a national program that trains Democratic women to run for office. “I thought, ‘Oh, I can’t run!’” Hobbs recalls. “I felt like I didn’t have the right connections or knowledge.”
But she eventually took the training, ran for state representative and won — an outcome she credits to Emerge. “For women, deciding to run for office is really different than it is for men,” Hobbs says. “Men wake up and think, ‘I’ll run for office!’ Women think, ‘How can I find somebody good?’ and never think of themselves. I think it’s just because of what we see; so much of what we see in political leadership is men. Emerge really helped to build confidence in me that I could do it and win.”
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