Women and Leadership in America
By Shyama Venkateswar, Ph.D.*
I’m just back from a family vacation in India where I was struck by the healthy public debates and frequent news hour analyses on the current Women's Reservation Bill that would provide for 33% “reservations” (quotas) for women in parliament and local state assemblies. This is a part of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s larger commitment to laws providing for gender equality in a country where millions of women and their families struggle to live on less than a $1 a day without regular access to food, water, housing, livelihoods, reproductive care or education.
Clearly, this is now a world-wide trend to bring more women into decision making positions in government and corporations. Norway, Spain, Netherlands have already passed legislation that would help to bring 30% to 40% women on corporate boards.
A provocative article today – Women’s Equality Day marking the 90th anniversary of American women’s suffrage – published in Bloomberg by Linda Tarr-Whelan and Jacki Zehner urges President Obama to convene a roundtable to explore ways to increase the number of women in senior leadership in the economy.
Such an initiative would move the United States out of its disappointing ranking of 31st of 134 countries in closing gender disparities and closer to other countries which are at the forefront of cutting a path for women’s leadership and decision making.
Bringing women to top leadership positions in the economy, aspiring for diversity as a quantifiable goal, and closing the gender gap are investments. Daniel Goleman (1995) credited women with “emotional intelligence,” an innate ability for greater collaborative work, openness, inter-personal relationships, trust and sensitivity.
Research produced by Catalyst shows that companies with more women on their board of directors outperform those without by at least 53%.
The World Economic Forum's Corporate Gender Gap Report found that in the United States, female employees are clustered in entry- or mid-level positions, and the barrier to female leadership isn't parenthood or “opting out,” but "masculine or patriarchal corporate culture" and a "lack of mentors." WEF estimates that closing the corporate gender gap could increase US GDP by up to 9 percent.
A national debate on how we can bring more women leaders into corporate governance, politics and other top decision-making positions is needed now more than ever. The recent economic crash or “The Great Recession” reverberated across the world exposing a culture of quick, short-term gains, and risky practices by an elite, homogenous group of decision-makers. The lack of diversity of thought, opinion, or experience, and a fundamental misjudgment of how badly managed risk could have an unstoppable ripple effect lies at the root of the crisis. As President Obama works towards instituting better checks and balances, and addressing the needs of those most affected by the crisis, he must bring together a bipartisan group of the best minds – academic, policy, corporate – to discuss, debate, and strategize on concrete recommendations to increase the number of women in senior leadership positions in the economy to at least 30%. Only then will there be a real economic recovery for all.
* Dr. Shyama Venkateswar is the Director of Research and Programs at the National Council for Research on Women