Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership

Barriers and Bias: the Status of Women and Leadership research cover art

Women are not new to leadership; think of Cleopatra or Queen Elizabeth. Think of the women who led the civil rights and education reform movements. But women are still outnumbered by men in the most prestigious positions, from Capitol Hill to the board room. Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership examines the causes of women’s underrepresentation in leadership roles in business, politics, and education and suggests what we can do to change the status quo.

Join the conversation by using hashtag #leadHERship


What Is the Gender Leadership Gap?

In short, women are much less likely than men to be in leadership positions. In universities, businesses, courts, unions, and religious institutions, male leaders outnumber female leaders by wide margins. Our elected state representatives, for example, are far more likely to be men than women:

Our representative democracy isn't very representative. The U.S. population is 49% men and 51% women, including 20% women of color.

The gender leadership crisis is even worse in the U.S. Congress, where women make up only 19 percent of our elected officials. And it’s plain dismal among governors, only six of whom are women.

Odds are your governor is a white man. The odds are stacked. US governors in 2016 -- 42 white men, 2 men of color, 4 white women, 2 women of color

For women of color, leadership opportunities are particularly elusive. Asian, black, and Hispanic women make up 17 percent of workers in Standard and Poor’s 500 companies but fewer than 4 percent of executive officials and managers. The further you move up the ladder, the fewer women are there.

Bad for business: Women leaders make companies stronger and more profitable. Why are there still so few women executives? 63% white men, 24% white women, 2% black women, 1% Hispanic women, 1% Asian American women, less than 1% women of other racial and ethnic groups


Why Is There a Gap?

There is no lack of qualified women to fill leadership roles. Women earn the majority of university degrees at every level except for professional degrees, and more women are in the workforce today than ever before. There must be something inherent in the system that’s working against them.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that 30,000 cases of sex discrimination in the last five years were settled or decided in favor of the person who filed the charge. But blatant sex discrimination isn’t the only barrier; hostile work environments, negative stereotypes about women in leadership, and bias also keep women out of the top spots.

Women have heard it all: I didn't think you'd want that much responsibility. I've never met a woman executive. We need someone who is going to be tough. Will your kids get in the way of your work? ... Don't be a barrier on a woman's path toward leadership.

One key obstacle to women’s leadership is unconscious or implicit bias, which can cloud judgment in ways people are not fully aware of. To help better understand the power of hidden bias and how to mitigate its effects, AAUW created an online test in collaboration with Harvard University and Project Implicit.

Think you're not biased against women leaders? Take the test.

Take the Implicit Association Test. This tool* tests for unconscious associations, and your results will help further AAUW’s research. Read more »

*Desktop or laptop computer required. Not compatible on mobile or tablet devices.


Why Should We Care about Women Leaders?

Having gender equality at the top benefits everyone. It’s good for both men and women to shift stereotypical ideas around gender roles — just as the status quo is holding women back from leadership roles, it is holding men back from embracing caretaking and support roles. It’s good for families, whether they rely on women as the sole breadwinners or share a two-earner income. It’s good for business to draw on the creativity of a diverse staff and recognize the purchasing power of women. It’s good for the country, because the more diverse the pool, the more talented our leaders will be.


From the Experts

Watch the AAUW researchers talk about the importance of women in leadership.

Watch video on YouTube.

What Can I Do to Close It?

The leadership gender gap is persistent and pervasive but solvable. There are many steps we can take as individuals, employers, and policy makers to create significant change.


Learn about your own subconscious biases by taking our brief online test.


Employers should create an equitable workplace culture, with flexibility and fair expectations for both men and women, and they should enforce fair policies through tools like diversity training and blind résumé screening.

Policy makers

There are many proposed pieces of legislation and regulations that would promote women leaders through pay equity (the Paycheck Fairness Act), family support (the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act), and salary transparency.

Read more about the AAUW recommendations.

Solutions from AAUW programs

AAUW Work Smart

Salary Negotiation Workshops

AAUW’s Start Smart and Work Smart workshops empower women with the tools they need to successfully negotiate their salaries.

Leadership Training for College Women

Our annual National Conference for College Women Student Leaders brings together 1,000 women for workshops, speakers, and professional development.

Stories from Women Leaders

Bree Best on her Telling Our Stories: I’m Not/I Am campaign poster.

8 Women, 8 Different Ways to Lead with AAUW

Check out these AAUW stars who are proving that women can be powerful leaders on campus and beyond. Read more »

Group of college women standing outside a university building

We Need Women Leaders to Solve Global Challenges

The world needs to value women’s contributions as much as men’s — our economic opportunity, peace, and security are on the line. Read more »

Presidents Carter, Clinton, Obama, and George W. Bush, laughing.

Why We Need to Stop Equating Leadership with Masculinity

Thanks to deeply ingrained stereotypes, time and again women leaders are labeled as bossy, cold, aggressive, and worse. Read more »

Elect Her alumna Allyson Carpenter tweets about her friend Amanda Bonam, who filled her Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner seat.

Black Women in Politics: From Social Mobilizing to Elected Office

When it comes to civic participation and mobilization (online and on the ground), black women are leaders. But they remain severely underrepresented in electoral politics. Read more »

Barriers and Bias is made possible by the generosity of AAUW’s Mooneen Lecce Giving Circle and the AAUW members whose gifts help support AAUW research.