If you could travel through time and tell suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony about the progress women have made in the last 100 years, they would probably laugh in your face in disbelief.
They probably couldn’t imagine a world where women lead Fortune 500 companies, control their lives and bodies, and are heads of state of countries around the world.
Yes, women have made huge strides since those brave pioneers fought for their right to vote.
Yet sadly, there’s still a long way to go.
While women make up almost 51 percent of the U.S. population, they still earn less than their male counterparts. Women still have to push their way in for a seat at the good old boys’ table, and they still have to battle traditional gender norms and antiquated expectations of how women are “supposed” to look, dress, and behave in the political arena.
Western women are more educated, have access to more resources, and have more opportunity now than any other time in history.
So why are we still lagging behind?
Women earn almost 60 percent of undergraduate degrees, 60 percent of all master’s degrees, 47 percent of all law degrees, and 48 percent of all medical degrees. They earn more than 44 percent of master’s degrees in business and management, including 37 percent of MBAs. They are 47 percent of the U.S. labor force, and 59 percent of the college-educated, entry-level workforce.
YET… we comprise only 14.6 percent of executive officers, 8.1 percent of top earners, 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and hold just 16.9 percent of Fortune 500 board seats.
In the 114th Congress of the United States, for example, 20 women serve as senators and 84 women serve as representatives. That’s only 19.4 percent of the total 535 seats in Congress.
In spite of how far we’ve come, there is still disparity in women’s salaries, power roles, and leadership positions in the workplace and in government.
Why this persists is a complex question. It’s easy to flippantly blame “The Patriarchy,” for holding women back, but we must tread lightly here. The truth is there are women around the world who struggle to merely survive within male-centric cultures. These women truly have no power, no agency, and no rights.
In the West, most women don’t deal with that kind of oppression. However, we do have to contend with unconscious bias, which I believe is at the root of our struggle for equity in all walks of life.
So the better question is, how do we raise awareness and begin to break down the barriers of bias?
Below are just a handful of strategies women can employ to push forward away from bias and toward more equality.
- Speak up and say what you want. Be clear about your goals and share expectations during appraisals and reviews. Don’t assume anyone knows what you want. Remember, silence implies compliance. If you are ready for a change, let it be known. If you don’t ask for what you want, the answer will always be no.
- Purposefully pursue leadership opportunities. Take the initiative to position yourself as a leader and demonstrate your skills. Step up and volunteer for the hard assignments. Get noticed by showing what skills and knowledge you bring to the table.
- Trust yourself and your abilities. Believe you are ready to take on the next challenge. You know what you are capable of doing. You have experience, education, and training to back you up.
- Be persistent and educate. Change unconscious biases by influencing decision-making and policy through education. Don’t give up because you’ve hit a wall; figure out a way to climb over it, crawl under it or to walk around it. Have an open and honest dialogue with someone in the club about shifting biases. Let them know when you see it so they can become aware and understand the impact on not only you, but also the business as a whole.
- Build alliances with influential women. Ask them to guide you and to offer insight in difficult situations. Believe in the power of solidarity and purpose to change assumptions and erase long-standing biases.
I believe a group of determined people can do almost anything. Changing perception and raising awareness of unconscious bias won’t happen overnight, but I do believe it’s possible.
When all women trust their power, speak up, take the initiative, and stick together, I believe we can change the world.