Campus & Community

The challenges of women’s leadership

6 min read

Calls for child care, intense discussions highlight conference

“Closing the leadership gap between men and women is one of the central challenges of this century,” said David Gergen, director of Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership (CPL), after two days of intense discussions at a Kennedy School conference on women’s leadership.

To have so many talented women and so few women leaders is just wrong, Gergen said, and represents a challenge to our society. “If international leaders have already made a pledge of reducing poverty by half in 2015, through the UN, we ought to also be committing ourselves to reduce this leadership gap in half by 2015 or 2020.”

The conference, coordinated by CPL Research Director Barbara Kellerman and co-sponsored by the Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP) and the Women’s Leadership Board, gathered 100 top professors, scholars, and fellows March 8-10 to discuss the status of women’s leadership in different fields.

Swanee Hunt, director of the Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program, pointed out the impact that women in power have: “The higher the percentage of women in parliaments, for example, the less corruption there is, and the more money that goes to health and education.”

Although, according to Deborah Rhode – director of the Stanford Center on Ethics, “women are a majority of the electorate [in the United States], they hold only 15 percent of congressional seats, and slightly over 20 percent of state legislative positions. At this moment, the United States ranks 66th in female representation – behind Sierra Leone.”

Progress vs. barriers

President Lawrence H. Summers – a keynote speaker – not only pointed out the profound importance of women’s leadership but also referred to statistics showing the progress women have made in education: “There are today 130 women graduating from college in the United States for every 100 men. The nation’s leading law schools, public policy schools, and medical schools are very close to 50-50 in the representation of men and women. In business schools, though, the fraction of women is much closer to a third.”

Summers stated that when these trends began in the mid-1970s, many expected to see more changes in leadership positions. “Yes,” he said, “50 percent of those going to leading law schools are women but only about 16 percent of partners in major law firms are women. Yes, a third of those going to business schools are women, but less than 2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.”

Summers pointed out that “a society that does not establish pathways to leadership for all of its citizens is a society that is denying itself a possibility of excellence.”

He said that what he is most struck by is that burdens fall disproportionately on parents with young children. “That’s why a significant part of what Harvard’s $50 million commitment is going to do is towards improving the quality of the support we give for child care.”

Gergen emphasized that not only as an American but as a father he wants the same opportunities for his daughter and his son. “But my daughter, who recently graduated from the medical school and is starting as a resident, now has a young child – and the barriers that she has found in her way! That’s just wrong. We all have to deal with these barriers,” Gergen said.

David Ellwood, dean of the Kennedy School of Government, also spoke about the critical situation of professional women who are trying to advance in their careers but confront the staggering cost of child care. Ellwood noted that the quality of day care has a real impact on children’s future.

The baby impact

A number of speakers pointed out that women who have babies need broader support.

Ellwood – who has studied the complexities of work-life balance – cited research pointing to the “very significant – and negative – career consequences suffered by high-skilled women who have children.” He found that their wages flatten – even for women who remain in the same firm and have a full-time job.

Ellwood’s study calculated differential earnings according to the age that women have a child: “The average lifetime earnings of a high-skilled woman who has a child in her 20s is $625,000; while the average lifetime earnings for those having a baby in their 30s is $750,000. For those who have no babies, lifetime earnings reach $913,000.”

“Fertility has fallen throughout the Western world as a consequence of careers,” Ellwood said. “There are enormous social consequences of our failure to look at the issue of work-life balance. But this fundamentally will shape the future of our society.”

Flexibility and support

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, director of the Center for Work-Life Policy, associated with Columbia University, agreed. And she added, “Thirty-five years after the beginning of the women’s movement, the shape and path of women’s careers remain significantly different from men’s.”

Hewlett pointed out that during the past three to four years, we have been reading many media stories about women abandoning their careers. “Two years ago I decided to put together some kind of response and started a task force – a group of cutting-edge companies that were newly committed to try to figure out how to figure out female talent over the long run precisely because of demographic and globalization reasons.” Among the companies involved are Time Warner, General Electric, Goldman Sachs, and British Petroleum – and all together they employ 2.8 million people.

“I was delighted with the first level of findings: Women are not really dropping out. It showed a significant proportion leave their jobs for a rather short term. On average they are out for 2.2 years and they try to get back in,” Hewlett said. The study included 2,443 women between 28 to 55 years.

Why do they come back in? Financial pressures in 45 percent of the cases – but almost the same proportion (43 percent) because they look for the satisfaction of having a career and giving back to society; they also want to regain status and power.

“The story is really how committed and attached women are to their careers. It is a cornerstone of their identity. There is not this redomestication of women as some say,” Hewlett noted.

Then, why do they leave? Family responsibilities are at the top of the list – mainly children (45 percent), career not satisfying (29 percent), eldercare (24 percent), stalled in career (23 percent). Only 6 percent said that their job was too demanding. Women also mentioned the sense of being passed over for promotion, or being underutilized and/or unappreciated.

At the end of the discussions, Gergen proposed having an annual conversation on this issue integrating efforts among CPL, WAPPP, and the Women’s Leadership Board. “It is certainly worthwhile fighting or pushing ahead because if we don’t fight, we will go backwards,” he concluded.

María Cristina Caballero is a fellow at the Center for Public Leadership at the KSG.