The Status of Women in Leadership Positions, According to an AAUW Study

A recent study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership, tackles the gender leadership gap: why it's important, why the gap exists, what strategies have successfully narrowed it, and what can be done moving forward.

The analysis centers on women in politics, education, and the workplace. While the study isn't all-encompassing because of the multiplicity of women's experiences, as stated in the study's Introduction, its findings are worth a look.

As the study points out, women have been leaders in different society throughout history, and despite stereotypes, the concept of leadership is not inherently masculine. There are many ways to lead. Women have made progress in leadership positions, but the gender gap continues to be a prevalent issue. Below are some statistics quoted in the study, about women in leadership positions:

- Women in leadership positions within businesses are a minority, making up less than 5 percent of CEOs of Standard and Poor's 500 (S&P 500) companies.
- Women make up 75 percent of non-profit workers, and 43 percent of non-profit CEOs. 18 percent of women at the largest non-profits, which have a budget of at least $50 million dollars, are CEOs; and 55 percent at smaller non-profits. Based on the size of the organization, women CEOs earn between 6 and 8 percent less than their male counterparts.
- While women and men are almost equally represented on non-profit boards, women of color are less likely to be board members. Within boards, chairs of boards or CEOs are the members most likely to be white.
- More women are earning college degrees than men, but are underrepresented in higher educations as tenured faculty and full professors, and in higher positions such as deans and presidents. Women of color at occupy a "small percentage of leadership positions."
- Significant improvements have been made towards closing the leadership gap in government positions, yet women are more likely to occupy the least powerful positions. Of the 50 current governors in the U.S., only 6 are women and 2 are women of color.

Why does the gender gap exist? According to the study there is a pipeline problem; sex discrimination continues to be a barrier, as are stereotypes and sexual harassment; family and caregiving responsibilities are more likely to affect women's careers than men's; research suggests that women are at a disadvantage when it comes to networks, mentorship, and sponsorship; and a variety of stereotypes and biases have detrimental effects.

Six strategies were presented in the study, which are already being used to attempt to close the gender gap. First are training programs, which have had mixed results. However some of the programs that have showed improvement, according to quoted studies, include leadership training programs for high school and college students.

Another strategy that has been utilized is Implicit Association Tests (IATS), which:

"measure the time it takes your mind to connect two words, such as "woman" and "scientist." Even if you feel strongly that women should have full access to all scientific professional opportunities, you still might take a bit longer to match the word "woman" with "scientist" than you do to match the word "man" with "scientist" because most of us have seen, met, and read about many more male scientists than female scientists. These small differences reveal an implicit bias. Hidden biases can cloud your judgment in ways you are not fully aware of, and they can make it more difficult to treat people fairly."

The study notes that even though IATs are not definitive, they can help individuals to understand how they think.

Third, gender quotas have been adopted by numerous organizations including governments and companies across the world, but the strategy has its detractors and limitations.

Fourth, employment reforms have been put in place such as gender-neutral job descriptions and flexible parental policies that can have a positive impact on women. That being said, the study states that some employment practices like providing recommendations for job candidates, can be more affected by biases.

Lastly, consistently showing various role models to children, including women in leadership positions, can have the potential to make positive difference. A lack of, or abundance of, role models can be especially important for women of color.

To conclude the study provides recommendations for narrowing the gender leadership gap by addressing it as individuals, employers, and policy makers. To read the complete study, click here.


A 2015 graduate from Boston University with an M.A. in International Relations and International Communications, Mariela holds a B.A. in Humanities from the Universidad del Turabo in Puerto Rico. She's passionate about writing and enthusiastic about contributing to Women's iLab. For more information or to contact Mariela, you can find her at Linkedin.