Why is it so Hard to Get More Women in Top Positions?

Since President Obama announced his Cabinet picks for the second term, many have vocally criticized the picture that is emerging – of a largely, white, male leadership team.

The criticism should not surprise us.  In the last year, we have seen a flurry of attention on the scarcity of women at top levels of policy institutions.  Anne-Marie Slaughter shook up the Washington foreign policy community with her July 2011 article reflecting on her challenges of juggling her dueling identities as a high-powered policy leader in the State Department and her family responsibilities.  Others have entered the fray with their own perspectives and criticisms of the policy environment in Washington for women.

Although more and more women are graduating with policy-relevant higher degrees and entering policy-focused careers, we are not seeing this translate to the very top levels of our government.

The discussion we are having now about Obama’s Cabinet is not a new one.  We’ve had this conversation before, in both Democratic and Republican administrations.  We also continue to have this same conversation in corporations, think tanks, universities, and in multilateral organizations such as the United Nations and NATO.

For some reason, we can’t seem to solve the problem at the top.

If we want to stop the handwringing about women’s underrepresentation every presidential term, every time there is a congressional election, and every time a CEO or other powerful candidate is appointed, we are going to have to address the root causes of the underrepresentation. That does not mean binders of women candidates — yes, that idea is back in circulation and I can tell you from experience, it doesn’t work.  If we want to solve the problem, we are going to have to understand how women are making choices about their careers along the way, and how women are faring in various policy environments from the junior through the senior levels.  We are going to have to tackle the real problems, both institutional and cultural, that impede women’s progress along the way to the top.

Women In International Security (WIIS), an organization that I am privileged to be a part of, has done a lot of the groundwork.  In 2010, WIIS published a study examining women’s career paths in foreign policy and national security for the U.S. Government.  The report highlighted the gaps in women’s inclusion at top levels and the problems in retaining and promoting female talent into decision-making levels in government.  As we researched the topic, and conducted numerous interviews and discussions with women in policymaking, we found that women are not getting the type of influential mentoring, nor the leadership and professional development preparation that they need to advance into and succeed in high-level policy positions.  Often, even highly-accomplished women are not tapped for leadership opportunities, and women are not filling “feeder” positions that are critical stepping stones to high-ranking positions.  Women remain less visible as experts than men in the policymaking arena.  Women are doing exceptional work, but because they are frequently “behind the scenes” and because they have a tendency to share credit for accomplishments, women do not always receive the recognition and promotions they deserve.  This creates a vicious cycle, as the lack of support they receive reinforces self-imposed negative assumptions about their own abilities and skills and causes them to pass up potential career opportunities.

And as Anne-Marie Slaughter pointed with her personal story, women continue to self-eliminate from senior positions, often due to work-life considerations.  Interviews conducted by WIIS reflect a consensus among women in policymaking that they have made, and continue to make more professional trade-offs than their male counterparts for work-life reasons.  If policy organizations would take this factor seriously, and institute and promote more opportunities for workplace flexibility and also career flexibility, we would see many more women rising through the ranks.

Instead, we are left with a shrinking pool of female candidates who stay on the advancement track, are visible in the policy community, and are supported by powerful sponsors.  It is not hard to see why so few women get identified and picked for these jobs.

Increasingly, I think that there is a related, less discussed problem here too.  Top level appointments in the government, and any institution for that matter, are highly political.  We often hear the term “gravitas” to describe the type of individuals who are selected for these opportunities.  But the determination of who has the right amount of gravitas and the leadership cred to serve in these very visible roles is highly subjective.  Could it be that decision-makers and institutions are perpetuating deeply-rooted assumptions about what kinds of experiences, personalities, leadership styles (and gender) make for successful leaders in the serious business of policymaking? If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone in the policy community say they couldn’t find “the right” female candidate to serve in a senior position, I’d be a wealthy woman.  Yes, there is a smaller pool of willing, available female candidates than we would like to see.  But I believe many times, the fallback decisions to white guys for senior level appointments has a lot to do with personal networks.  That is why the endless lists, rosters, binders of women candidates have never been successful.  “The old boys’ network” is alive and well.  Women have a tough time breaking into these circles of powerful influence or creating equally effective networks for themselves.  And yet, visibility and relationships in these circles are necessary for candidates at this level.  Equally as important, the career paths of women often weave in different directions than that of male counterparts (such as taking decisions along the way for work-life reasons).  Decision-makers have not understood how to value those other life experiences and divergent career paths, or to consider them as excellent preparation for leadership roles. And as a result, talented women are passed over again and again, whether it is in the UN or US Government.

If we want to move past the conversation that we are having now and see women’s interest and engagement in the lower rungs of policymaking translate to top positions, the obstacles to women’s participation must be addressed at the root, and with a longer-term approach.  In my experience at WIIS, I’ve seen very little desire within key policymaking and policy-influencing institutions to consider women’s participation as a priority worthy of deep attention and investment – quite the opposite.  Maybe the recent criticism of Obama’s Cabinet appointees presents an opportunity to place emphasis on advancing gender parity at the top of influential policy environments where women and gender considerations remain sidelined.  Documenting women’s presence in key institutions, promoting better mentorship and sponsorship practices for and among women, providing leadership training and credentials that will help women to be seen as candidates for decision-making roles, and instituting much better workplace and career flexibility options will all go a long way towards shifting the demographics at the top.  WIIS and other organizations have done the foundational work.  Now let’s get started.


Jolynn Shoemaker has served as the Director of Women In International Security (WIIS) for the past 7 years.

By Allison Tilt

During the past few months, there has been a notable focus on issues relating to women’s representation in visible roles.  Female athletes as part of every participating county’s Olympic team, coupled with a deluge of voices of prominent women (Anne-Marie Slaughter, Sheryl Sandberg and Anne Kim) on the importance of women’s advancement has lit a fire under the issues of women’s equality and leadership, and prompted numerous commentaries.  Women are indeed making headway in career advancement across various sectors (look no further than the pregnant Yahoo! CEO Melissa Mayer), and there is an increasing recognition of the importance of female participation in policymaking. Yet, there are many hindrances that continue to obstruct women from climbing to the top of the career ladder, resulting in a continuing “leaky pipeline” that the societal and organizational benefits of full participation of women at top levels.

The Importance of Female Participation

Women now make up a majority of the world’s population, and new research now suggests they may be more intelligent. Therefore, losing the female perspective in foreign policy (as well as other sectors) can be detrimental.  The underrepresentation of woman leaders leaves national security and other policy institutions facing untapped brainpower, obstructing the adoption of new approaches, according to Heather Hurlburt.

Jolynn Shoemaker, Director of Women In International Security (WIIS), was quoted to this effect in Micah Zenko’s 2011 Foreign Policy article “City of Men”: “The lack of participation of women in influential policy roles ultimately limits the capabilities of these organizations to develop new ideas and innovative foreign-policy approaches.”  Various issues resonate with and impact women and men differently, and therefore insights from both genders are required to make the most complete assessment of any issue.

Women create unique perspectives on the ground, as well as in policy-making.  In a 2008 WIIS report entitled Women in United Nations Peace Operations, women “tend to be more careful in [regard to cultural awareness], and are often viewed as bridge builders both inside and outside the mission” in UN conflict areas.  Furthermore, women have been viewed as key mediators during times of conflict.  In war-ravaged Sierra Leone, women who had lost their own children took in enemy child soldiers to help them reintegrate into society.  Elsewhere, women of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Argentina were thought to help bring to light the government’s atrocities during the military dictatorship in the 1970s. The government saw them less as a threat than a nuisance, until their peaceful protests began to break down the resolve of the Argentine military forces.

The importance of the female perspective can be reworded a myriad of times. The WIIS report on UN Peacekeeping Operations described it as well as any other,

“This is why it is so important to include women in leadership positions.  Clearly, there is no single strategy for securing and sustaining peace in conflict zones.  By failing to include women in key roles in peacekeeping missions, the UN is missing the diversity of thought that can bring new approaches and solutions to the table.”

Therefore, research indicates that significant, sustainable progress on peace and security will depend in part on women’s active involvement and representation in leadership roles. With greater inclusion of women in all manners of policy planning, the increased diversity of thoughts and approaches can lead to greater success in tackling US and global security dilemmas.

Leaky Pipeline

The fundamental challenge to improving this diversity in policymaking is the leaky pipeline phenomenon, in which the female participation begins to drop at the midlevels and the gap between women and men in senior leadership positions continues to widen.  So despite the tremendous strides of women in education, women remain dismally behind in workplace statistics.  Only 3{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, for example.

The causes of the leaky pipeline are complicated and include self-elimination of women from opportunities, negative work environments and experiences, as well as work-life choices.  For example, as demonstrated by WIIS’s women in UN peacekeeping report, women make up a sizeable amount of entry-level positions with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), but fewer than 10{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} make it to senior positions. It appears that junior professionals are leaving before they even have the chance to excel. The trend has been observed in many other institutions as well.

During Sheryl Sandberg’s 2011 commencement at Barnard College, she said that women make little choices on a near-daily basis that allows them to opt out in pursuit of a family.  She used this example:

“It’s the fifth year in a law firm when they say, ‘I’m not even sure I should go for partner, because I know I’m going to want kids eventually.’ These women don’t even have relationships, and already they’re finding balance, balance for responsibilities they don’t yet have.  And from that moment, they start quietly leaning back.”

What Sandberg was hinting at is that women today are (un)consciously making a decision to opt out of partner, surgeon or CEO based on assumptions about future trade-offs between work and family. WIIS’s report on women in UN peace operations, found that women in senior positions were usually unmarried, divorced and/or childless, and this perception of senior level women was echoed by a WIIS report in 2010 on the U.S. Executive Branch.

A key observation of WIIS’s executive branch report found that “many women made choices at one or more points in their careers that valued family and children’s priorities over advancements,” at all career stages.  The same report also found that women who had left government employment in order to raise children had a difficult time returning to service.

Family concerns are only one aspect of the “leaky pipeline.” In the case of the DPKO, many female managers rose through the ranks of the UN, earning their positions through fieldwork or other pertinent skill sets.  Other female leaders reported being recruited to their UN position by someone already in the system, opposed to working through the ranks or using official employment programs. For women in the executive branch, participation in internships and junior professional programs created an environment of peers and mentors that aided in their navigation through the bureaucratic process and through promotions.  Of those interviewed for the WIIS report, very few entered the government by applying for open vacancies.  In addition to the difficulty of applying through job postings, these women felt they lacked the same support mechanisms than women who entered through other channels (p. 29).

A large reason women opt-out at a younger age could be linked to work atmosphere.  As Heather Hurlburt wrote in her article, “Feminine Realpolitik” in Foreign Policy, “if moving from defense to development buys you a more congenial workplace and bosses who seem to value you more, then it’s no wonder that the ranks of women in ‘hard security’ dwindles along the way.” This concern was echoed in Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic piece, suggesting that America’s business and work culture can clash with family and personal needs. An NPR article from 2010 demonstrates that relaxing the traditional work schedule has advantages- software development company owner Katie Sleep boasts a 95{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} retention rate for her employees.  Her method? She allows employees to work from a physical office and from home, depending on their daily schedules.

There are many challenges that women face in achieving top-level positions in public policy institutions.  Women continue to feel forced to make decisions that men rarely face in order to advance their careers. Women coming up through the pipeline are doing everything that Ms. Kim suggested (cite); they are acknowledging the problem, organizing a network, and searching for solutions.  However, more needs to be done, and it needs more attention and publicity.  WIIS is working on analyzing, supporting and advocating for women’s leadership opportunities, trying to give the issue the spotlight it deserves, but more participation and activism is required at all levels.   Men and women need to work together to confront the issue with more vivacity and strength, and increase recognition that a woman’s perspective, on all policy issues, is an imperative that is in everyone’s interest.  Until that day, WIIS, its members, and partnering organizations will continue the slow but steady work of bringing more women to the forefront of policy wonks, experts and leaders.