How Can We Close the Gender Leadership Gap?

March 30, 2016

The relationship between women and leadership has been a popular topic recently. However, most of the discussion focuses on understanding the issue instead of ideas for action. Women make up more than half of college graduates and half the labor force, and have long careers in many fields — so there’s no lack of women to fill leadership positions. But we’re still not represented at the upper levels.

Based on the findings and recommendations in the AAUW report, Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership, here’s what individuals, employers, and policy makers can do to help close the gender leadership gap.

What Can Individuals Do?

1. Find leadership training.

Interactive, fun, and evidence-based trainings are some of the best ways to develop leadership skills. AAUW is home to many programs that empower women to take the lead in their schools and communities. Elect Her trains college women to run for student government and other political offices. Our annual conference, the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders (NCCWSL), brings college students from around the country together to finesse their leadership skills, network with the AAUW community, and prepare them for life after graduation.

2. Ask for more.

Salary and benefits negotiation is a strategy that helps women demonstrate their worth in the workplace. AAUW’s Start Smart and Work Smart workshops teach women about the gender pay gap, how to determine a fair salary range, and how to negotiate salary offers. Salary negotiations help women close the gender pay gap one person at a time. When women advance in the workplace, they are more likely to rise to leadership positions. Negotiation is not just about money, it is also about opportunity.

3. Understand your biases — even the ones you don’t realize you have.

Take the test. This tool* tests for unconscious associations, and your results will help further AAUW’s research. Read more »
Most people believe that sex discrimination is wrong, yet it still happens. Unconscious, or implicit, biases are harder to identify because they can affect our judgment, even though we may be unaware of them. Uncovering these implicit biases can be the first step toward eliminating them. AAUW has collaborated with scholars at Project Implicit to create an Implicit Association Test that looks at the mental associations we make between gender and a variety of concepts, many of which affect our beliefs about women in leadership positions.

What Can Employers Do?

1. Be flexible.

Young mother sitting on her sofa at home with her baby son on her knee. She is working on a laptop and there are dirty nappies on the floor.
When women and men have flexible schedules, they can better balance work and family. These days, many jobs are not strictly 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in a specific location, and people have opportunities to work alternative schedules and telework. Organizations often say that face time or a set number of hours determines whether the work will get done. But when the focus shifts from hours served to the production and quality of work, morale and persistence increase. When women and men can stay in their careers while parenting and caregiving, they’re more likely to have the tenure needed for many leadership positions.

2. Offer evidence-based diversity training.

"Diversity is good. Pass it down the line."
Trainings for the workplace can be useful for optimal performance and employee morale. Diversity in the workforce contributes to creativity, productivity, and innovation. Many diversity trainings exist, so make sure to search for ones grounded in the latest evidence-based research on bias and stereotypes.

3. Try sponsorship programs.

Cropped shot of two female coworkers talking in the office
Mentorship involves experienced professionals serving as role models and providing career or academic advice. One step beyond mentorship is sponsorship, where the professional uses their personal or professional leverage to advance your career. Accessibility to influential mentors and sponsors helps cultivate the next generation of women leaders.


What Can Policy Makers Do?

1. Fight for fair pay.

equal pay
Policy makers can strengthen equal pay laws and increase salary transparency. Creating an equitable workplace is the only way to solve the gender leadership gap. Pay can be a signal of power and status. Supporting and passing legislation such as the Paycheck Fairness Act would help enforce laws we already have that defend against pay discrimination. One challenge the pay gap presents is that salary differences are often unknown. By enforcing salary transparency and anti-retaliation policies, we can start uncovering the practices that hold women back across industries and occupations.

2. Strengthen leave policies.

Two elder women spending nice time together
Unlike the majority of developed countries worldwide, the United States does not guarantee paid annual leave, paid time off for illness or family care, or paid parental leave. Without these policies, balancing the responsibilities of work and family can be difficult for employees and can negatively affect a woman’s career trajectory and leadership opportunities in the workplace. Federal policy makers can act by supporting the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, which would establish paid medical and parental leave for all workers. They can also support the federal Healthy Families Act and state and local earned sick days laws, which allow workers to earn paid sick days to cover temporary and minor illnesses and caregiving for a sick family member. In addition, state and local policy makers can work to move statewide leave and sick days programs that help women maintain a work-life balance.

3. Don’t forget about Title IX.

Happy football player with her team at the soccer field
Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in education, requires equitable policies and practices by schools. This includes tackling discriminatory policies in admissions, recruitment, counseling, and the persistent sexual harassment and violence in our schools. These factors all limit women’s ability to complete their educations and pursue leadership opportunities. The Department of Education needs resources to ensure technical assistance and full enforcement of the law. Congress should act to provide enough funding to support robust Department of Education action.


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By:   |   March 30, 2016