As a Senior Industry Fellow of the Georgetown University Women’s Leadership Institute, I had the privilege of participating in the Institute’s October experimental workshop to brainstorm initiatives for continued progress to close gender pay, advancement, and leadership gaps in corporate America. The Institute convened senior executives from 16 top companies and 10 leading scholars (labor economists and other academic researchers who study the gender gap) to consider the prospects for jointly conceived, evidence-based initiatives to further the full participation of women. During the workshop and since, my thoughts have been churning to try to summarize where we – women and men in this together – are in the pursuit of the full participation of women at all levels and to try to frame the challenge ahead in a simple and straightforward way.
First, we have come a long way, so far in fact that many may mistakenly assume that the real challenge is behind us. But the numbers as well as individuals’ experience indicate that still more challenge lies ahead. In the United States, barriers to entry and to participation are for the most part behind us. But full participation, particularly at the higher levels, is still elusive. Barriers to full participation are subtle and nuanced.
Second, it has taken a long time to come this long way, and it will take a long time ahead to achieve full participation. Some participation, including some participation at the highest levels of influence, power, and leadership, may dull the sense of urgency and immediacy to sustain, if not accelerate, efforts to advance women’s full participation. To illustrate, here is an example from higher education (where I’ve gained decades of leadership experience): Gender balance in hiring new faculty in most disciplines is achievable now, but even with balanced hiring, given the current demographics of the tenured faculty and the low turnover rate, it will take many years to bring the gender profile of the tenured faculty into balance. That is the case for seniormost positions in many professions and for leadership positions across the board, particularly where the absolute number of positions is limited and turnover is slow. In contrast, gender balance in the student body was achieved more easily and rapidly once barriers to entry were lifted because the student body renews with each graduating class, and in many schools enrollment was increased overall to accommodate the entry of women. Such sweeping, short-term change is rare in senior and leadership ranks.
How do we accept the reality that the next phase of measurable and observable progress is likely to be slow, yet simultaneously maintain enthusiasm and resolve to accelerate efforts to achieve women’s full participation? We need to get past the subtle and nuanced barriers. We need to offset the resistance of those who may persist in behaviors that inhibit change while the gender mix at the upper levels remains so imbalanced. And, we need to shape environments that feel inclusive despite the imbalance in the meantime. To effect these corrective adjustments, we need to work as individuals, as organizations, and as a society. We will clear the way for full participation as we individually and collectively come to understand the influence and effects of beliefs about gender, understand how these shape our behavior in small and large ways, know that the common traits that spell success in the workplace are more important than gender differences, and act decisively on these understandings and knowledge.