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

January 15, 2013

Since President Obama announced his Cabinet picks for the second term, many have vocally criticized the picture that is emerging – of a largely, white, male leadership team.

The criticism should not surprise us.  In the last year, we have seen a flurry of attention on the scarcity of women at top levels of policy institutions.  Anne-Marie Slaughter shook up the Washington foreign policy community with her July 2011 article reflecting on her challenges of juggling her dueling 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 in Washington 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.

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

If we want to stop the handwringing about women’s underrepresentation every presidential term, every time there is a 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 — yes, that idea is back in circulation and I can tell you from experience, it doesn’t work.  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 preparation 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 they receive reinforces self-imposed negative assumptions about their own abilities and skills and causes them to pass up potential career opportunities.

And 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 and promote more opportunities for workplace flexibility and also career flexibility, we would see many more women rising through the ranks.

Instead, we are left with a shrinking pool of female candidates who 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, I think that there is a related, 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 the determination of who has the right amount of gravitas and the leadership cred to serve in these very visible roles is highly subjective.  Could it be that decision-makers 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 I believe many times, the fallback decisions to white guys for senior level appointments has a lot to do with personal networks.  That is why the endless lists, rosters, binders of women candidates have never been successful.  “The old boys’ network” is alive and well.  Women have a tough time breaking into these circles of powerful influence or creating equally effective networks for themselves.  And yet, visibility and relationships in these circles are necessary for candidates at this level.  Equally as important, the career paths of women often weave in different directions than that of male counterparts (such as taking decisions along the way for work-life reasons).  Decision-makers have not understood how to value those other life experiences and divergent career paths, or to consider them as excellent preparation for leadership roles. And as a result, talented women are passed over again and again, whether it is in the UN or US Government.

If we want to move past the conversation that we are having now and see women’s interest and 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.  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 and investment – 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.  Documenting women’s presence in key institutions, promoting better mentorship and sponsorship practices for and among women, providing leadership training and credentials that will help women to be seen as candidates for decision-making roles, and instituting much better workplace and career flexibility options will all go a long way towards shifting the demographics at the top.  WIIS and other organizations have done the foundational work.  Now let’s get started.

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Jolynn Shoemaker has served as the Director of Women In International Security (WIIS) for the past 7 years.

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