Why are there so few women leaders?

I just returned from an inspiring week at the first ever Women Leaders Global Forum — aka Davos for women. In attendance were 400+ women (and men) from over 80 countries representing government, business, and civil society. I was one of them, representing Water For People. You can watch my highlights on my YouTube video here.

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What will it take to change these facts and have more women leaders in all four of these areas? There are many myths to dispel about what is holding women back. It is not about lack of ambition or that there are not enough women in the leadership pipeline. Here are my three main takeaways of things that need to change:

  1. Remove barriers to entry — social norms, systemic issues, institutional routines, laws, etc. Women are often discouraged to run for political office because they are told that politics will be too hard for them as women. Some countries have put in quotas to get more women representation. Interestingly, Rwanda has a quota for 30% women in decision-making organizations, and women are now at 64% of the national legislature. PM Justin Trudeau created the first gender balanced cabinet in Canada. The Nordic countries still lead women in government globally, at 39%. Quotas will likely not happen in the US government anytime soon, but rank choice voting has helped with equity in local elections to get higher numbers of women, people of color, and women of color. Luckily, there are also organizations like Running Start that are helping girls prepare to run for political office.

Laws that inhibit women’s economic opportunities are still present in 155 countries, with a high percentage in the middle east. 100 countries put restrictions on the types of jobs women can do and 18 countries allow husbands to dictate whether their wives can work at all. The USA has several sexist laws that you many not know about, like parental rights for rapists, when you can legally wed a child, sleeveless outfits are not allowed in Congress, women cannot wear pants in Tucson, and you need your husband’s consent to cut your hair in Michigan. Time for some updates! And when will enough states (need 38) ratify the equal rights amendment to make it law? We have been on this journey since 1972…just need one more state. Will it be Virginia?

I met Savak Pavey last week, a Member of Parliament from Turkey, and heard her incredible story about her fight to wear pants in Parliament. Unbelievable — but true. After spending a week in Iceland, where gender equality is the norm and is protected by law, I was reminded just how big the disparities still are globally.

2. Change perceptions and challenge biases. The Women Leaders Global Forum unveiled the Reykjavik Index for Leadership last week. It was done in partnership with Kantar and is a fascinating look at perceptions and biases in the G7. For example, only 52% of people in the USA feel comfortable with a woman head of state. Slightly higher — 63% — feel comfortable with a woman as CEO of a major company. How disappointing! Overall, for the G7 countries, only 66% of respondents viewed women equal to men for leadership positions across 20 sectors. The intent is to get to 100% — equal opportunity for men and women — why should we have anything less? While women were slightly better respondents (by 6%) than men, they are still not at 100%. I am saddened that women are so biased against women in leadership roles. Obviously we still have work to do.

3. Give greater support to women — from both men and women. More men supporting women as allies are needed, especially in male-dominated sectors. I know this from my own personal experiences as an executive in an engineering firm. I am thankful to the men and women that believed in me and supported me by offering me key roles, valuing my skills, speaking up to others that devalued me, and understanding the complexities of being the sole breadwinner/mom/successful career woman. Lucky for me, my husband is also one of my greatest allies. I am grateful that he enabled me to have the career that I aspired to have, and that he dedicated himself to be the stay-at-home parent. It hasn’t been easy.

Men often don’t engage in supporting women for fear of losing status or of being seen as part of the problem. And there is apathy by men due to the sense that issues of gender do not concern them. Some men, however, embrace women leaders and believe that having more women at the decision making table leads to better outcomes. They are excellent allies. The CEO of Women Political Leaders is a man (Rich Zednik) and a role model for other men. As Rich says, “The world would be a better place if men ran only half of it.” Gender-balanced management teams do outperform gender imbalanced teams. So why are they still in the minority?

What about women supporting women? This should be a given, but there is a gap to close. Throughout my career I have observed women performing at higher levels than their male peers in order to be seen as equals.The attrition rate of women leaving corporate careers can be high in male-dominated professions. If women know of each others’ challenges at work, I believe they can sometimes be overcome through solidarity — by sticking together, supporting, and sponsoring other women. It worked for me. I have had a strong network of friends/colleagues throughout my career. Some of us bonded together and did our best to help raise awareness of inequities, open doors for more women, and support each other to have fulfilling careers AND a good work-life balance. Hopefully we helped pave the way for more women to have management roles in the future. Unfortunately, I know many women in engineering that left mid-career because they didn’t have the energy or support to persevere and overcome the challenges, or they didn’t think they could be influential in changing a system of entrenched bias so that it could be more supportive of women.

As CEO of Water For People, I am able to take the best practices and experiences from my corporate playbook and combine these with the mission-driven culture of a non-profit. My intent is to create a more inclusive and purpose-centered workplace than I ever had earlier in my career.

My time last week at the Forum gave me a lot to think about. It reinforced things I already believed in, and reminded me that if trends are going to change, I have to help make that change. We have more #PowerTogether as women leaders than we do alone. I am committed to supporting the incredible women leaders that I met, and the many more that I already know, so we can all succeed and fulfill our dreams and ambitions. The world would be a better place if women ran half of it.