Friday, November 13, 2009

Report notes difference between perception and reality for women leaders in workplace

If so many people believe women are great leaders, why is the number of women leaders so low? Despite being “solidly entrenched” in the workforce, women “have made strikingly little progress in advancing to the boardrooms and the executive suites; in some sectors of the economy, their progress has been stalled for several years,” according to a new report issued today by The White House Project, a New York-based, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization.

The report, The White House Project: Benchmarking Women’s Leadership, attempts to “address that contradiction and offer concrete, practical recommendations.” The 132-page report reviews a survey of the “current state of women’s leadership” in ten different fields—academia, business, film and television entertainment, journalism, law, military, nonprofit, politics, religion, and sports. The organization hopes its report will help establish an “understanding of where we are, so that we may know where we need to go.”

2009 has been a great year for women to make news, according to Marie Wilson, president and founder of The White House Project. She points to the enactment of the Lilly Ledbetter bill, the confirmation of Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the US Supreme Court, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ announcement that women are on the cusp of overtaking men on payrolls across America as examples. “It seems that in the midst of our economic downturn, and the accompanying state of flux in politics and culture, America has been turning to its women for vision, talent and leadership.” While its good news that Americans are overwhelmingly willing to bring women into leadership roles, Wilson notes that this “comfort level” is “accompanied by the misperception that women are already leading equally alongside their male peers.”

This report, like last month’s The Shriver Report: A Women’s Nation Changes Everything, picks up on the idea of a schism between perception and reality for women in the workplace. Unlike The Shriver Report, which looked at working women in general, The White House Project focused on women and leadership.

The report is divided into sections examining the status of each field and each section features a quote from a prominent woman in that field, including Soledad O’Brien, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Sprinkled throughout each section are statistics that are sure to take some readers aback. For instance, under “Business,” the report notes that women have reached the CEO level in only four of the 14 industries covered by the Fortune 500 companies—and even in these four industries, over 95 percent of the CEOs are male. Among Fortune 500 companies in 2009, 3 percent of the CEOs were women. The single exception is the construction industry, where women constitute 9.7 percent of the work force, but 17.6 percent of the corporate officers.

In “Law,” women make up 48 percent of law school graduates and 45 percent of law firm associates but only comprise 18 percent of the general partners and 16 percent of the equity partners in private law firms. “In fact, in the legal sector, the line tracking women’s share of leadership roles follows a straighter downward path as the potential to assume a leadership role rises, than in any other professional sector in this report.”

In the “Nonprofit” sector, women dominate the staffing, comprising nearly 75 percent of the 8.4 million employees in 2005. Despite this, women hold only 45 percent of all CEO positions. That figure falls to 21 percent in organizations with budgets over $25 million.

In addition to the industry examination and analysis, the report suggests implementing six recommendations that have shown to be effective in increasing the progress of women into leadership positions.

The White House Project’s mission is to advance women’s leadership in all communities and sectors—up to the U.S. presidency—by filling the leadership pipeline with a richly diverse, critical mass of women. More information about the organization can be found on its website,

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