Skip to main content

Why Do So Few Women Hold Positions of Power?

IPR briefing examines potential and challenges for women leaders

Get all our news

Subscribe to newsletter

“By influencing aspirations, these woman leaders might be able to have a big influence beyond just their direct policies, by serving as role models for future generations of girls,” Lori Beaman said.”

Alice Eagly (center) discusses the obstacles women leaders must overcome to negotiate the "labyrinth" of gender inequality with panelists Brigham Young political scientist Christopher Karpowitz and IPR economist Lori Beaman.

Only 19 percent of U.S. congressional members, less than 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, and only two out of the current crop of U.S. presidential candidates are women.

Clearly, “women are profoundly underrepresented in the United States in truly high-powered roles,” said IPR psychologist Alice Eagly at a December 4, 2015, IPR policy research briefing in Chicago.

Before nearly 90 attendees, Eagly, IPR economist Lori Beaman, and Brigham Young political scientist Christopher Karpowitz dove into an interdisciplinary discussion of this issue and what might be possible to ensure that more women attain—and maintain—positions of power.

“This panel makes it clear that in society, in academia, in scholarship, in politics—there’s an awful lot of promise, but also an awful lot of work we have to do together” to encourage gender equality, said IPR Director David Figlio.

Negotiating the Labyrinth

Gender stereotypes are holding women back, Eagly argued. Americans tend to think of men as “agentic,” people who are assertive and take charge. They think of women as “communal,” individuals who are nice, friendly, and caring. But Americans think of leaders as being more agentic than communal.

Women who want to be leaders, therefore, run into two problems: The first is the “double standard”: A female candidate for a powerful role has to put her agentic side on display to reassure people that she can take charge, which is hardly ever an issue for men. The second is the “double bind”: When women in leadership roles do act tough, there is a backlash against them for being too tough.“You can see a problem here,” Eagly said. “The men and leaders match in our general stereotypes, and women and leaders don’t match as much.”

There is evidence, however, that the United States is moving in the right direction when it comes to fixing these problems, Eagly finds. People’s perceptions of what it means to be a leader have changed in the past 40 years to incorporate more communal traits, like social skills. People are more open to having a female boss. And women today are more open to being bosses than women in the past.

So rather than seeing female leaders as pushing against a “glass ceiling,” we should instead picture them as navigating a labyrinth, Eagly said—finding the right path is a challenge but persistence and careful thought pay off.

Gender Inequality in Deliberative Participation

Madeline Albright, America’s first female Secretary of State, once spoke about how she would think about making a comment and then refrain because people would find it “stupid.” “And then a man would say exactly what I had in mind and the other participants would find it brilliant,” she reminisced.

Karpowitz decided to investigate what happened to the many women who, like Albright, participate in groups in which they are “vastly outnumbered” by men—from school boards to corporate boards and the Supreme Court.

He went on to discuss the research from his book with Princeton sociologist Tali Mendelberg, The Silent Sex: Gender Deliberation and Institutions (Princeton University Press, 2015), that examines how the male/female make-up of groups and their decision-making process affect women’s and men’s participation.

Shari Diamond
IPR associate, law professor, and psychologist Shari Diamond asks the panelists a question.

In groups that make decisions by majority rule, women “not only talk less than men, but they talk much less than their presence in the group [would otherwise indicate],” Karpowitz said. In other words, if women make up 20 percent of a group, the amount of their participation in the conversation typically falls short of 20 percent. 

In unanimous-rule groups, however, women who were outnumbered by men came closer to making up an equal share of the conversation because every person had to agree in order to reach a final decision.

Women who spoke more also reported more confidence in their own influence, and in groups where women were empowered by numbers or decision rule, they also experienced “greater respect and more positive feedback” from the men in the group.

This is good news for majority-woman groups or women in groups that make decisions by unanimous rule, he continued. But, as most often seems to be case, when women are in the minority in a majority-rule group, they are less likely to speak up. This means no one will hear or vote on their policy preferences, and they will not earn this respect.

“If we care about authority, we ought to care both about who’s in the room and the norms and rules for decision-making,” Karpowitz concluded.

Women’s Political Empowerment

Another possible mechanism for bettering the ratio of female-to-male leaders involves the thorny topic of quotas. Beaman described several studies of social experiments she has led, looking specifically at how quotas might have helped increased the number of women in positions of power. 

In India, a constitutional amendment requires that one-third of village council president positions be randomly reserved for women. In the short term, Beaman discovered that quotas led to more women being elected. 

She also finds long-run impacts: In villages that had a woman leader for more than a decade, voters tended to be less prejudiced about woman leaders overall. In one experiment, Beaman had men and women recite the same political speech word for word, and then asked villagers who listened to it about the speaker’s effectiveness. In places that had not had a woman leader, villagers were likely to say the female speaker was ineffective when compared with the male speaker. However, in those that had a woman leader, “that prejudice vanishes,” Beaman explained.

In places where quotas had been in effect for 10 years, women were much more likely to run for election and more likely to win their races than in places that had only had woman politicians for a short time, or not at all.

But perhaps one of the most important long-term effects of the quota system was that in villages where a woman had led for at least 10 years, teenage girls, and their parents, were more likely to hold higher aspirations for their education and their careers than were girls in places that never had a female leader.

“By influencing aspirations, these woman leaders might be able to have a big influence beyond just their direct policies, by serving as role models for future generations of girls,” Beaman said. Given the U.S. political climate, Beaman doubts whether quotas would ever be possible here, but “there’s a lot that we can learn from India’s experience, even in the U.S.,” she said.

Njoki Kamau of Northwestern University’s Women’s Center closed out the Q&A portion of the event by asking a question on everyone’s mind: Will Hillary Clinton become the United States’ first female president?

While both Eagly and Karpowitz noted that the answer to this question mainly depends on who she might face if nominated, Eagly remarked that Clinton has already been responding to the backlash against woman leaders by conveying both strength and warmth at the same time. “I think she is very aware,” she said.

Alice Eagly is James Padilla Chair of Arts and Sciences, Professor of Psychology, and an IPR fellow. Christopher Karpowitz is associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University. Lori Beaman is assistant professor of economics and an IPR fellow.

Published: March 8, 2016.