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We Need to Push Harder for Women’s Representation in Leadership

Across the country and in our nation’s capital, our newly elected leaders will soon have taken their oaths of office to begin or renew their tenures. These orderly and peaceful transfers of power are worth celebrating, especially in these tumultuous times.

But as someone who’s dedicated my entire adult life to working for equal opportunity for women, my own celebration is tinged with ambivalence. Yes, it’s great that we have three more women governors now, a new record. And that an additional two seats in Congress will be held by women, which is welcome news. 

But when you look at those numbers more closely, the picture isn’t quite so bright: Women are still nowhere near where we deserve to be.

Only 12 of the 50 state governors are women—that’s less than 25 percent. And while there are a record 124 women in Congress, they’re still only about a quarter of the entire elected body.

More than 50 percent of the U.S. population is female, so it begs the question: Why are we still so underrepresented in these influential roles? And more importantly, what can we do to ensure that we finally achieve equal representation?

The answers aren’t simple. But in my 20-plus years of working for gender equity, I’ve learned that we need to continue to focus on the fundamentals to ensure that women have an equal shot at the highest levels of leadership.

1. We must provide equal opportunity in education.

Research shows that from the time they enter pre-school, boys and girls are treated differently, and encounter some degree of “gender tracking.” For example, girls and boys show similar interest and ability in math and science, but girls still tend to be steered away from these fields as early as elementary school.

And gender tracking only becomes more pronounced throughout a student’s education. By the time they reach college, men dominate nine of the 10 college majors that lead to the highest-paying jobs. And women, by contrast, dominate six of the 10 lowest-paying majors.

Unsurprisingly, women’s lack of equal opportunity in education leads to reduced opportunity in their careers, in their earning ability, and in their access to leadership roles. With women now outnumbering men at virtually every level of higher education, we need to work harder to make sure women are well represented across all disciplines.

2. We must let go of gender biases and stereotypes.

Men have dominated leadership positions for so long that people tend to see leadership traits as inherently masculine. Research shows that women who exhibit these traits are often viewed less favorably. That’s changing a bit as women move into more powerful roles. But old stereotypes die hard—and people continue to harbor these implicit biases.

The first step toward moving past these biases is to acknowledge that we have them. Then we need to be willing to do the work to reshape our ways of thinking.

3. We must train and empower women to lead.

Despite their successes in so many arenas, women still underestimate their ability to lead. That’s why AAUW is so focused on creating programs to enhance women’s leadership skills and to remind them that they are capable, qualified, and entitled to lead.

Our annual leadership conference for college women does exactly that. In May, hundreds of young women from across the country will gather on the University of Maryland campus for the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders (NCCWSL) to learn, network and be inspired to fulfill their potentials as leaders.  This program, now in its 30th year, has served more than 10,000 young women so far.

Ms. Magazine

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