Statue of girl standing up to bull
In 1971, the U.S. Congress designated August 26 as “Women’s Equality Day” to commemorate the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted women the right to vote. In the 97 years since that amendment was ratified, progress toward full equality has been sluggish. In 2017, there are 105 women in the U.S. Congress, 21 in the Senate and 84 in the House, or 21% and 19.3% respectively. Those proportions are about double what they were 20 years ago, but they are less than half what they ought to be, given that most citizens believe in gender equality.

The Pew Research Center did a major survey two years ago and found that a majority of Americans see no difference in the leadership capabilities of men and women. And our society recently passed a milestone: over half of managerial and professional occupations are now held by women. This is up from 30% five decades ago.

If there is no difference in the leadership capabilities of men and women, business is systematically denying itself the benefit of some of its best potential leaders. Early this summer, Fortune released its annual count of women CEOs at Fortune 500 firms, and it noted that — at 32 — it was the highest it had ever been. Note, however, that 32 is only 6.4% of 500. To be fair, this proportion is up from zero 20 years ago, so there is some movement. But it’s frustrating that while women are on a par with men for managerial and professional occupations as a whole, the top leadership positions seem stubbornly resistant to gender equality.

The Pew study cited above asked respondents about leadership qualities and found that a majority of respondents felt seven characteristics were essential to leadership:

honest (84%)
intelligent (80%)
decisive (80%)
organized (67%)
compassionate (57%)
innovative (56%)
ambitious (53%)
The numbers in parentheses are the percentages of respondents who identified the characteristic as being essential. From my vantage point, I can quibble with this list of characteristics. Where are the qualities “persuasive,” “visionary,” and “articulate”? Nevertheless, according to the research, most people see no difference in the likelihood of finding any of these leadership characteristics in people of either gender.

According to the outplacement firm, Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., CEO turnover has been fairly stable over the past seven years, averaging about 1200 departures per year. If there is no difference in the leadership abilities of men and women, about 600 women should be filling those slots every year. If there is no difference in the leadership abilities of men and women, it means that businesses are every year elevating at least a few hundred men over women who are better qualified.

This will be the 46th Women’s Equality Day, and it is a good time to reflect on what we have all achieved in terms of gender equality. But it’s also a good time to reflect on how much work there is left to do. Business cannot reach its full potential until it makes the most effective use of all the resources available, and we won’t be able to honestly say it’s doing that until the Fortune 500 CEOs include 250 women.


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