Acknowledging and understanding gender gaps in leadership

The growing number of women entering the 2020 presidential race — Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) — has Americans asking the same question they asked in 2016 with Hillary Clinton’s campaign: Is the U.S. finally poised for its first woman president?

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It’s a timely question ahead of March 8, the annual International Women’s Day, which describes itself as an opportunity for “a call to action for accelerating gender parity.”

The issue of women’s empowerment has been squarely in the spotlight, particularly in the aftermath of the Women’s March in January as well as the #MeToo movement, which continues to focus a robust national conversation on the implications of the age-old trend of men disproportionately holding positions of power.

While there’s no doubting the potential significance of the first female U.S. president, there are countless other senior positions at companies and institutions that experience turnover on an annual basis. So how are women faring more broadly when it comes to scoring the “top job?”

The answer continues to be: not all that well. According to a Pew Research Center study released last April, women comprise just 5 percent of CEOs in corporate America. Higher education, however, could be the sector which one day substantively reverses long-held gender patterns in executive hiring. Women held 30 percent of college and university president positions as of 2016, up from 10 percent in 1986 and 26 percent in 2011, the most recent American College President Study revealed. At the universities presumed to be the country’s most elite institutions — the Ivy League schools — three of the eight current presidents (37.5 percent) are women; in total, 6 of the 8 have had female presidents, including Yale where a woman served as president pro tempore during a leadership transition. Yet the incidence of female university presidents still falls well short of women’s over 56-percent share of the college student population in the U.S.

The issue of women’s empowerment in the academic world resonates deeply with me not as a university president, but as the CEO of the American Society of the University of Haifa, an organization that serves as the vital connection between the University and its many friends in the United States. On a daily basis, I’m proud and inspired to be part of a university community that includes a number of female trailblazers, including Prof. Mouna Maroun, head of the University’s Laboratory for Neurobiology of Emotions, who promotes the study of life sciences and engineering among Israel’s Arab population; Elka Nir, CEO of Carmel Ltd, who runs a fund that supports innovative projects based on the University’s intellectual property; and Prof. Noya Rimalt, co-director of the Center for Gender, Law and Policy.

Some of Professor Rimalt’s recent work highlights the just one of the many systemic barriers to women’s advancement.  Rimalt explains how gender-neutral parental leave policies, whether it be FMLA in the U.S. or corresponding laws in Israel and elsewhere in the West, have failed to bridge gender gaps. The recent comprehensive report on FMLA revealed that 38 percent of female employees, but just 6 percent of male employees, take leave of more than 60 days for parental reasons.

Further, U.S. Department of Labor data shows that although 69.9 percent of mothers with children participate in the workforce compared to 92.8 percent of fathers, mothers are more likely than fathers to work part-time or make additional professional concessions to meet parental responsibilities.

Rimalt notes that in their efforts to recruit men to be caretakers at home through parental leave policies, policymakers have “focused on influencing men’s parental choices and behavior. This male-centered focus left untouched the question of how and why women contribute to this gendered reality and what additional (women-oriented) measures are necessary in order to advance change.” Moving forward, she argues, parental leave policies should “explore the structures and forces that shape women’s decision to remain the primary caretakers at home.”

Of course, there’s no quick policy solution when it comes to women’s advancement in the workforce and society. Parenting and family responsibilities comprise a small subset of the obstacles that many women face as they move along their career paths; there is certainly no precise formula that will guarantee a female U.S. president, or even greater proportions of women corporate CEOs, leaders or university presidents. But on this International Women’s Day, let us all take time to acknowledge the gender gaps that exist in leadership. This mindfulness, in turn, should serve to shape conversations and policies that ultimately lead to a more equitable future.

About the Author
Karen L. Berman is CEO of the American Society of the University of Haifa.
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