The Numbers: Why Focus on Women in Leadership?

Part One of a Series on Women in Leadership: The numbers.

Women in leadership. Is there really a need for focus on such a topic? After all, leaders are leaders. There is no difference. This is sentiment that I have run into in the course of my life (and idealistically wanted to embrace in one season) but especially in the past year since I have been raising my voice about the topic. Instead of living the daily reality of how different it actually is to be a woman in leadership in silence, I have begun to own the experiences and work through challenges while supporting other women in leadership. In this space, I am learning clearly a major purpose in my life will be to continue to learn and to teach masses. It is possible to see continued change in my lifetime. I can and will be part of this change.

Before I launch in, let me clarify a few points since I know already some people reading this have their hackles all raised up in defense simply with the topic at hand.

1. Note that I did not say women have it so bad and men walk on easy street. That is not my message, and it never will be. In fact, all leadership can be hard.
2. Women AND men in leadership face unique challenges given societal norms and pressures that may be implicit in nature. (Society views women as emotional, so they must show that and men should not show emotion, especially cry. Low hanging fruit for that example, my friends, but it illustrates a point.)
3. Great leaders are great leaders regardless of gender and being a man or a woman does not qualify a person one way or the other. That is truth. The same goes for poor leaders,
4.  I adore my male colleagues and am grateful each day for the way in which I get the gift of engaging in vital discourse that makes me better as a professional and a person. There is no male bashing or othering that I seek in this or any work I ever put out.

With all that out of the way, let’s open up the tough conversations. One issue at a time. This post is the start of a series on topics associated with women in leadership.

My purpose in this post is to throw light on one item. The numbers.
There is a difference for women in leadership in the numbers. Simply stated, there is a lack of parity in our top leadership positions. It is important to acknowledge this fact and start as individuals and collective communities to examine why that might be.

Rather than launch into an insanely long summary on the history of women in the workplace in our country, let me simply state that there is a startlingly lengthy road that women have had to scrape through to be able to sit at the boardroom tables. We have seen growth in this country. That makes sense of course when you go from zero to any number that is not zero. Growth is good. As a woman in leadership though, I cannot help but feel deflated when I see that the national averages are still quite low in the highest levels of leadership. If we look at CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies, we get a whopping 4.8%. Highest levels of state and national politics saw a major uptick in November 2018, but women still top out at less than 30% representation. (And I am not even breaking demographics down further than gender in this post!)

Teacher numbers at the secondary level are increasing, but female principals at the secondary level are still lagging behind. I lived this reality. As a woman in leadership in my part of the state, I was the sole female of nine high school principals that met monthly to network and make decisions as a conference.  Great news is that the principalship overall is looking closer to balanced (except when you look at secondary levels).

At the superintendent level, we see nationwide a range from 15-25% female superintendents. I was curious in my own state and region because, to be blunt, I feel like a minority up here in this part of the state. I don’t know if it was affirming or flabbergasting when I crunched the numbers. In my region, 13% (5 females) are superintendents. In Wisconsin, females make up 28% of the current superintendents in our state.

So what, some say? Well, it is interesting in education in particular because the teaching force is female dominated with estimates reaching up to 80% of teachers being female in some parts of the country, yet that trend is not the same for leadership positions. Time to talk.  When researching this information, it was an interesting punch in the gut to read from one well known researcher on the trends in education:

“Traditionally, women’s work has been held in lower esteem and has paid less than male-dominated work. If the feminization of teaching continues, what will it mean for the way this line of work is valued and rewarded?” (Ingersoll, Merril, and Stuckey 2014)

In sum, this trend affects us all. Oh, and women are paid still paid less. Depending upon industry, you’ll get mixed data, but overall it is still an 80/20 game. For the same work.

According to the Pew Research Center, “The gender gap in pay has narrowed since 1980, but it has remained relatively stable over the past 15 years or so. In 2018, women earned 85% of what men earned, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of median hourly earnings of both full- and part-time workers in the United States. Based on this estimate, it would take an extra 39 days of work for women to earn what men did in 2018.
By comparison, the Census Bureau found that, in 2017, full-time, year-round working women earned 80% of what their male counterparts earned.
I don’t want to oversimply this highly complex topic because this post could be an entire dissertation! However, needling it down to a few points provides rationale for why we should all be looking at this. The field can get lonely for those of us out there, especially when others are not willing to see the difference.  Which is why I will remain passionate about supporting women in leadership, even when I am questioned on it. We need mentors. Sponsors. Community of mixed gender to acknowledge the disparity and continue to lift one another. For the trailblazing five women in my part of the state, I will continue to support, amplify, and empower others to join them at the table! And maybe even join them myself some day. 

The goal for this first post was to shine light on one issue. The numbers. As with any social issue, there are myriad factors that contribute to it as well as multiple solutions. In subsequent posts, I will pick away at some of them. All I am asking today is to factor your own context for this information and consider what solution you might bring.

As for me, keep looking for me to show up bravely as a leader and continuing to funnel my energies to support and amplify women to help us all rise.


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