Why Is it so Hard to Get More Women in Top Positions?

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    Jan 16, 2013

    As President Obama announced his cabinet picks for the second term, many have loudly criticized the picture that is emerging of a largely white, male leadership team.

    For some reason, we can’t seem to solve the problem at the top.

    In the past year, there has been a flurry of attention on the scarcity of women at the top levels of policy institutions. Anne-Marie Slaughter shook up the Washington foreign policy community with her July 2012 article reflecting on the challenges of juggling her duel identities as a high-powered policy leader in the State Department and her family responsibilities. Others have entered the fray with their own perspectives and criticisms of the policy environment for women.

    Although more and more women are graduating with policy relevant higher degrees and entering policy focused careers, we are not seeing this translate to the very top levels of our government. The discussion we are having now about Obama’s cabinet is not a new one. We’ve had this conversation before, in both Democratic and Republican administrations. We also continue to have this same conversation in corporations, think tanks, universities, and in multilateral organizations such as the United Nations and NATO.

    If we want to stop the handwringing about women’s underrepresentation every presidential term, every congressional election, and every time a CEO or other powerful candidate is appointed, we are going to have to address the root causes of the underrepresentation. That does not mean binders of women candidates. If we want to solve the problem, we are going to have to understand how women are making choices about their careers along the way and how women are faring in various policy environments from the junior through the senior levels. We are going to have to tackle the real problems, both institutional and cultural, that impede women’s progress along the way to the top.

    Women in International Security (WIIS), an organization that I am privileged to be a part of, has done a lot of the groundwork. In 2010, WIIS published a study examining women’s career paths in foreign policy and national security for the U.S. Government. The report highlighted the gaps in women’s inclusion at top levels and the problems in retaining and promoting female talent into decision-making levels in government. As we researched the topic and conducted numerous interviews and discussions with women in policymaking, we found that women are not getting the type of influential mentoring, nor the leadership and professional development that they need to advance into and succeed in high level policy positions.

    Often, even highly accomplished women are not tapped for leadership opportunities and women are not filling “feeder” positions that are critical stepping stones to high ranking positions. Women remain less visible as experts than men in the policymaking arena. Women are doing exceptional work but because they are frequently “behind the scenes” and because they have a tendency to share credit for accomplishments women do not always receive the recognition and promotions they deserve. This creates a vicious cycle, as the lack of support reinforces self-imposed negative assumptions about their own abilities and skills and causes them to pass up potential career opportunities.

    As Anne-Marie Slaughter pointed with her personal story, women continue to self-eliminate from senior positions, often due to work/life considerations. Interviews conducted by WIIS reflect a consensus among women in policymaking that they have made, and continue to make, more professional trade-offs than their male counterparts for work/life reasons. If policy organizations would take this factor seriously and institute more opportunities for workplace and career flexibility we would see many more women rising through the ranks.

    Instead, we are left with a shrinking pool of female candidates that stay on the advancement track, are visible in the policy community, and are supported by powerful sponsors. It is not hard to see why so few women get identified and picked for these jobs.

    Increasingly, there is a related but less discussed problem here too. Top level appointments in the government, and any institution for that matter, are highly political. We often hear the term “gravitas” to describe the type of individuals who are selected for these opportunities. But determining who has the right amount of gravitas and leadership credibility to serve in these visible roles is highly subjective. Could it be that decisionmakers and institutions are perpetuating deeply-rooted assumptions about what kinds of experiences, personalities, leadership styles (and gender) make for successful leaders in the serious business of policymaking? If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone in the policy community say they couldn’t find “the right” female candidate to serve in a senior position, I’d be a wealthy woman. Yes, there is a smaller pool of willing, available female candidates than we would like to see but many times the fallback decisions to white guys for senior level appointments have a lot to do with personal networks. That is why the endless lists, rosters, and binders of women candidates have never been successful. The “old boys’ network” is alive and well and women have a tough time breaking into these powerful circles of influence.

    Equally important, the career paths of women often weave in directions different than those of their male counterparts (such as taking decisions along the way for work-life reasons). Decisionmakers have not understood how to value those other life experiences and divergent career paths or to consider them as excellent preparation for leadership roles. As a result, talented women are passed over again and again, whether it is in the UN, U.S. Government, or elsewhere.

    In my experience at WIIS, I’ve seen very little desire within key policymaking and policy-influencing institutions to consider women’s participation as a priority worthy of deep attention--quite the opposite. Maybe the recent criticism of Obama’s cabinet appointees presents an opportunity to place emphasis on advancing gender parity at the top of influential policy environments where women and gender considerations remain sidelined.

    If we want to move past the current conversation and see women’s engagement in the lower rungs of policymaking translate to top positions, the obstacles to women’s participation must be addressed at the root and with a longer-term approach. Documenting women’s presence in key institutions, promoting better mentorship for and among women, providing leadership training, and instituting much better workplace and career flexibility options will go a long way towards shifting the demographics at the top. Otherwise, we’ll just keep seeing this same male dominated picture in our key leadership posts, and policymaking will suffer as a result. WIIS and other organizations have done the foundational work. Now let’s get started on making changes.

    Jolynn Shoemaker has served as the director of Women in International Security (WIIS) for the past seven years.

    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.