Kamala Harris for VP: Why Do Women Take Longer to Reach Leadership Positions?


Kamala Harris could be vice president of the United States. When women’s representation at one of the highest posts in government has taken so long, what can we make of women’s representation in workplace leadership?

“If you exclude 50% of the talent pool, it’s no wonder you find yourself in a war for talent.”

— Theresa J. Whitmarsh, Executive Director of the Washington State Investment Board, at the World Economic Forum in Davos (2016)

This, in a nutshell, explains how the corporate world has been operating with the false perception of a talent shortage. The exclusion of a core group in the talent hunt based on gender forms the foundation of this war. And this war is still being fought because organizations and governments across the world have still not recognized or realized the business impact of having women leaders and a gender-diverse workforce. More women joining the workforce can add $12 trillionOpens a new window to global growth, by 2025, finds McKinsey.

Why are we discussing this now? Because Joe Biden has announcedOpens a new window that Kamala Harris will be his vice-presidential running mate for the 2020 U.S. elections. This is the first time a woman of color has been selected for this role. We are in 2020, and this is how long it has taken for one woman to reach the highest level of leadership in the government in a developed nation that calls itself a world superpower. Leaders like Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern have already shown their prowess in leading developed nations and proven what female leadership can do. Now, a woman will potentially demonstrate her leadership to a country that has long needed to experience the same prowess of her counterparts.

This puts a lot of things in perspective with respect to women in leadership roles, or rather the lack of them. Kamala Harris dropped outOpens a new window of the presidential race after announcing in January 2019 that she would be running for president in the 2020 elections. Her reasons for dropping out were poor poll and fundraising numbers. This move raised questions about the challenges women face in their journey to becoming influential and transformational leaders. And unfortunately, this pattern runs deep even in leadership at work.

Let’s look at some numbers. In the United States in 2019, women made up nearly half (47.0%) of the labor forceOpens a new window , but only slightly over a third (40.0%) of managers. In the same year, white women held almost a third (32.3%) of all management positions. However, women of color held a drastically smaller share of management positions – with Black women holding 4.0% and Asian women holding 2.5%. The glaring lack of leadership diversityOpens a new window requires that we shed some light on why it is a challenge in the first place.

HR Technology News: Diversity Hiring to Create More Inclusive Leadership: Goldman Sachs Plans to Double It by 2025

What Challenges Do Women Leaders Face in Their Journey to the Top in the Workplace?

The challenges are the same, and though there has been progress, it is often undermined by events such as a global pandemic, which is putting women behind again. But pandemic or not, women have faced and continue to face serious challenges in getting to the top.

Lack of men’s involvement in workplace gender diversity initiatives

It has been seen that most women’s leadership development initiatives or diversity programs in an organization are targeted or centered only on the involvement of women. And unfortunately, this affects the long-term impact of such programs. A BCG Gender Diversity 2017 surveyOpens a new window shows that among companies need men to be involved in gender diversity initiatives to be a success. It found that when men were actively involved in such initiatives, 96% of them reported progress. Contrarily, among companies where men were not involved, only 30% showed improvement. There is a clear correlation between men’s involvement in gender diversity programs and their success since it is likely to result in more awareness and acceptance of the higher business impact of these programs in the workplace.

Unconscious bias and role stereotypes

This one’s a no-brainer, and one of the biggest reasons for the low numbers of women in senior leadership roles. The cultural assumptions around gendered leadership have created a gap between men and women in senior and executive positions. Traits such as aggression that are considered positive in men are perceived negatively when demonstrated by women.

Even before the vice presidential pick, a group of powerful women wrote to news media outlets Opens a new window asking them to change the narrative in the way a female VP candidate was being spoken of. The letter highlights “multiple ways that media coverage over the years has contributed to the facts of the lack of diversity at the top of society’s roles,” providing examples such as reporting on a woman’s ambition negatively and assessing her likeability, looks, and tone for a leadership position. These biases play out in business leadership considerations as well, requiring women to work much harder to reach those positions.

In some cases, employees don’t perceive women leaders to be effective leaders, and male leaders may not invest in them.

Due to the biases and revised expectations, women leadersOpens a new window are likely to lose their self-confidence, which can affect their performance. This is mainly compounded by unbalanced external and internal scrutiny of womenOpens a new window in positions of power.

Insufficient women role models and visible leaders

There are few women role modelsOpens a new window and visible leaders for women to look up to in the workplace. This discourages most women from aspiring to move up the career ladder. The onus lies with organizations to increase the visibility of high-performing women who have moved up so that it has an overall impact when it comes to changing working culture and perception. Women also lack the mentorship and guidance to lead mixed-gender teams at a management level.

HR Technology News: Fewer Women Are Applying for Top Jobs in Finance, Finds Report

Again, though there is change, it’s time for some radical moves toward equitable leadership in the workplace. Companies don’t need to wait as long as the U.S. has had to wait for a powerful female leader to lead change. This might begin with getting more men involved in conversations about gender diversity, promoting talented female employees to leadership positions so they can lead by example, and making diversity and inclusion a part of the company’s core culture. This can happen only when companies overcome the pressure to “tick the box” in case of gender diversity and make fundamental changes to their workplace, people, and culture.