The Real Reason Women Are Still Underrepresented In Leadership

My friend Sasha, a STEM major, is constantly asked what it's like to be "a girl in science." Her mother, who has had a successful and illustrious career in medicine, understands her daughter's struggle all too well. When she was a resident, she told her daughter, she did not receive paid maternity leave and only took time off when she could. She watched men rise to the top of STEM fields for years and saw how their work was overstated while women's was ignored. She therefore found her daughter's experience disappointing but unsurprising.

Given the pervasiveness of both daily and lifelong sexist experiences like these, it's perhaps unsurprising that women fail to rise to leadership positions — in STEM fields and beyond. A study released late last year found that fewer women run big companies than do men named John, for example. Elle Magazine also recently highlighted this issue in a video for their #MoreWomen campaign, which demonstrated just how few women are included in influential meetings — like those at Buckingham Palace, the United Nations, the United States Executive Cabinet — and in the media by removing men from photos of these gatherings.

But while these efforts do much to highlight this problem, they hardly incite systemic change. The reality is that no matter how much "awareness" we raise, women won't rise to leadership positions until institutional structures themselves change — especially in the United States.

Take the realm of politics, for example. Towards the end of last year, the United Nations briefed that the US is "allowing its women to lag behind," noting that while the United States currently has an unprecedented number of women in its government, the nation still ranks behind many other developed countries. But many other countries have demonstrated that structural change on this front is possible. Norway, for example, established a quota requiring that 40% of all directors of big companies be female in 2008. More recently, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decided to name a gender equal cabinet composed of 15 men and 15 women. One of the United Nations’ recent Sustainable Development Goals is entirely focused on gender equality.

The efforts of many to force Hollywood to better represent women and minorities also offers a crucial example of this change. While publicly addressing the sexism and racism that has existed in the industry is important, so is actually creating positions and hiring these individuals. Samantha Bee demonstrated this perfectly, for example, by actively deciding to hire a writing staff that is 50% women and 30% non-white on her new show.

Ultimately, promoting women’s empowerment through advocacy initiatives and social media campaigns is only a small fraction of the effort required to establish these modifications. We must challenge the very norms and mores of patriarchal societies and acknowledge that reaching gender equality requires action.

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Ines R
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