The Thread: Women and Leadership

In the U.S., why isn't the percentage of government seats held by women higher?

Canada's National Post has created an excellent infographic illustrating the data in Save the Children's State of the World's Mothers report. Co.Exist's Ariel Schwartz dug into the report and visualization this morning.

click to enlarge


The data highlights the fact that the U.S. lags behind many other nations when it comes to the percentage of government seats held by women—an issue that has been part of the broader, voracious debate reignited in recent weeks by Anne-Marie Slaughter's "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" essay in The Atlantic. In the U.S., only 17% of government seats are held by women. Compare that to Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, and even non-Scandinavian nations like Cuba, Nicaragua, South Africa, and Rwanda (Rwanda incorporates a constitutional quota system), all of which can boast that at least 40% of their government seats are held by women, according to Save the Children's data.

Why do you think the percentage of government seats held by women is lower in the United States than it is in some other countries—and what, if anything, should be done to change the ratio? Tell us in the comments section below—we'll update this post with your responses next week.

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  • Beverlyboston


    In my opinion, that
    the lack of female leaders may be linked to the old way of thinking and a
    closed or fixed mindset that they don’t perform as highly as men – which is totally
    unproven. While men as leaders do extremely well in the technical and strategic
    playing field, women clearly have the distinct advantage in the tremendously
    important areas of people relationships, engagement and communication. They
    also exceed their male equivalent in striving for results. This we recognize is
    counter intuitive to a lot of men.

    Counter intuitive,
    but very true. If businesses or government want to get the best out of their
    leadership team, they need to re-examine old stereotypes and recognize the true
    performance capabilities of female leaders, which would move them more towards
    a growth or open mindset.

  • Dsw713

    Unfortunately our female youth is caught up in the barrage of marketing of reality stars as opposed to real positive female role models.  We need to expose our children at an earlier age to women who are succeeding in leadership roles in the world as opposed to the media.

  • Anne

    As ANON said: " It involves far longer hours, heavy travel, and an environment of constant confrontation. "
    I think this alludes to the root of this situation. Maybe this situation isn't a problem. It may be a matter of choice. As a woman in business school, I see a lot of women going into Marketing over Finance (Accounting is more balanced). From my perspective, I see women being more comfortable with low pressure jobs. Some argue that the way we were socialized as children contributes to being less competitive (ie. "Cutthroat" as sometimes Politics seems to be). I think a lot of women are intimidated by these careers or "just don't see themselves there" because they aren't comfortable with this job for a living (or maybe they're perception is makes them feel this way). I'm sure growing up seeing more men in these careers (on TV, in movies, etc) may also contribute to this perception. 

    Here's a common thing I see in college:

    Guys have a set goal, whether they come to college right away or figure out when they get here. "I'm going to be a doctor, I'm going into business, I'm going to be a senator," and some say "I'm just going to make a lot of money" and will pick a career to do this and stick with it.  Goal oriented.

    Girls go into psychology. They don't know exactly what they want to do, but the classes sound interesting. They also don't have to make a decision right a way which is comforting. They think they might want to be a psychologist. Then they find they wouldn't like it because x reason. They look around at other majors, maybe anthropology? International affairs? They're more true to what's interesting to them rather than a set goal.

    I know this is just one example and I could go into more depth if I was writing a book. I just wanted to bring some  thought processes to life as I see it.

    I think for politics or even business, you have to be really motivated. You have to put yourself out there. You have to give presentations, you have to meet with clients, you have to negotiate, you have to be very confident, you have to argue. In summary, I think it's less comfortable for women to do this. It's easier to be a nurse, a teacher, a social media expert, whatever. And maybe there's nothing wrong with that. We get work/life balance, we make money, we get our family, we travel, we fall in love, and we don't have to live with the extra stress. 

    And why the difference between countries? Maybe the work pressure in America is more stressful... 

    So if we decide this is a problem, then you have to talk to girls earlier. You have to get them in high school (maybe earlier), and make them comfortable with presenting, arguing, negotiating - "putting themselves out there." And try to change some of the mis-perceptions about the job being overwhelming (show them it can be done, show the perks, have successful women speak to them), show them it can be done- they can do it. But also make sure they know it will be challenging, but it will be worth it.

  • Tyler Fastcompany Gray

     This is incredibly well thought out, and I really have appreciated this Thread. But allow me to represent at least one example of a man who's the exact opposite of what you described: I didn't have a specific career goal other than "to do for a living what I'd do for free anyway." I was a psych major because it sounded interesting. Not until year 3 in college did I decide on journalism. Then, of course, I got a job as a jr. reporter at the paper before I graduated and grabbed onto career goals like a bulldog grabs on to a rawhide, but ... at least one example of the opposite being true. Maybe that all makes me more in touch with my feminine side more than the average man, too.

  • Anon

    Well, cue the Darth Vader music here, but I'm going to throw some cold water on the incredible logical fallacies that underpin this author's obvious gender bias. But before I do, I'm going to pre-empt the typical slanderous responses that will pour forth from the emotional thinkers here.

    I'm not a misogynist, I'm an equitist and have great relationships with the women in my life.
    I'm not disaffected or angry, I'm a well balanced person who thinks rationally.
    I'm not a loser who lives with his mom, I'm successful and happy both professionally and personally.
    I'm not gay, or secretly gay.
    I've never discriminated against anyone based on anything other than the way they behave. 
    Disagreeing with the premise of this article, and some aspects of feminism in general, does not make me, or anyone else, any of the above things. People are entitled to disagree and their viewpoints have as much merit as yours, else you have become the very thing you profess to hate - intolerant.
    Being female does not give a human being greater insight into the human condition, greater compassion, or a greater connection to a natural or higher power.

    Now, with that out of the way, let's look atlogical fallacy:

    "Why do you think the percentage of government seats held by women is lower in the United States than it it in some other countries"
    This statement is predicated on the belief that having fewer seats held by women is a problem. The paragraph of text preceding it is designed to lead the reader to this false assumption without stopping to question. But this fails the logic test of reversal; eg: If the reverse situation were true, no feminist would accept the argument that policies should be imposed to reduce the number of women and replace them with men because the women in power were inherently incapable of looking out for the interests of men. The authors base assumption is designed to frame the discussion so that any rationality outside that frame work is seen as discriminatory against women by implication. 

    The fallacy is also exposed when one challenges it with the test of causality. Corrolation does not equal causation; eg: just because there are fewer women in office, this does not mean there is anything preventing them from gaining office. The American political system is far different and much higher pressure than most of the countries the author contrasts it against. It involves far longer hours, heavy travel, and an environment of constant confrontation. Many women avoid careers in fields with these aspects because they desire a different work/life balance and less pressure on their families. These are legitimate and justifiable choices on their part and should be respected. Putting pressure on women and girls to pursue roles such as these or be seen as less respected than their male counterparts is the very essence of misogyny.

  • Anne

    Good argument. I liked your point about the pressure aspect of government. I replied above if you want to check it out.

  • Anjali Mullany

    Hi   - 

    Thanks for taking the time to submit a thoughtful comment. I wrote the discussion post.

    I found your last paragraph, the response to the question I asked above, very interesting. I hadn't thought of this: "The American political system is far different and much higher pressure than most of the countries the author contrasts it against." I wonder how the day-to-day life of, say, an elected national official in Iceland or Norway or South Africa compares to the life of an elected national official in the U.S., because you are right, that could possibly be a reason why a higher percentage of government seats are held by women in some other countries - I am going to try to look into that.

    I disagree that I display an "obvious gender bias", if by gender bias you mean I am biased in favor of women over men. I'm presenting a fact - that a lower percentage of government seats in the US are held by women when compared to a number of other countries - and asking the Fast Company community why they think this is so. 

    I also don't agree that, as you allege, I purposely wrote this post in such a way as to manipulate or stunt commenters, or to condemn certain points of view to accusations of discrimination - that is the opposite of my intention, I want real discussions to take place on this site. That said, I'd find it helpful to hear from any other commenters who agree with you and think I wrote this post in a manipulative or biased fashion.

    In your comment you suggest that you might be attacked for your views - I would suggest that one way to keep the conversation civil here is to not dismiss your fellow commenters as "emotional" - I was actually very happy to see that many of the comments here are thoughtful and, as the days go on, represent some diverse perspectives. 

    Thanks again for contributing your thoughts.

  • Anon

    Thanks for replying Anjali, I am the Anon of the original post. Another thanks for acknowledging the point of my post. However, please understand that I did not intend to accuse you of malicious intent when I said "gender bias".

    My purpose was to expose to you, and to the readers how the cultural environment concerning men and women has become so distorted that even you never stopped to consider that perhaps this isn't a problem at all. Our universities and media have become so filled with a culture of victimhood for girls/women, and by implication a portrayal of boys/men as predators, that we've stopped thinking. Its happened because feminism has been hijacked by gender warriors who have no interest in teaching how to think, but rather what to think.

    The fact that you framed the situation in your first sentence by using "lags behind" to describe the US is undeniable proof that you yourself are a victim of this persecutorial monoculture. You then go on to connect it to a completely unrelated debate about "Why Women Still Can't Have It All", which is another way of implying oppression of women. In fact, these figures and the article are about as related as dogs and cats because they both have fur. 

    So although you most likely did not intend to manipulate, stunt comments, or condemn, the way you have been affected by the monoculture delivered the implication anyway - right through you. Asking for others to comment if they agree with me is also another passive way of silencing dissent, as no one raises their hand when asked who agrees with the agitator. Subconciously its a way we comfort ourselves that we couldnt possibly be biased could we? After all, when asked no one agreed with him. 

    Trust me, many many men reading this agree. I know because I've conducted studies on this sort of thing and most men are too afraid to speak up anymore. They all know a male friend who lost his job, or career, or wife and family, or all three for saying the wrong thing, or hiring/firing the right person.

    It has to stop and journalists like yourself have the first and greatest responsibility. How a question is asked, or how "facts" are presented, in and of themselves imply what viewpoints and responses are considered as acceptable. It would have taken you 3 minutes on Google like me to find the political and cultural difference explanations concerning this issue. You need to ask yourself why it never occurred to do so? Is it because no other explanation than discrimination occurred to you?

    As far as dismissing my fellow readers as "emotional", I did so because I have experience in posting here (one reason why I refuse to give your system my email address and stay anonymous), and I know what to expect. Also, please note that I did not call all of the readers "emotional" (SIC). I was addressing the "emotional thinkers" who only constitute a small but vocal minority.

    P.S. - Respect to Anne for a level headed and rational response.

  • Kaledom

    Because the question will repeat again in different way. "why isn't the percentage of government seats held by men higher?"


  • Luanne Tierney

    The statistics on the number of women in US politics is sobering. Women, whether in business or politics, can help by mentoring each other. In many organizations, there’s no process in place for women to easily advance. Where do you go to learn the intricacies of the budget process or the way to package proposals or ideas so they get acted on? In some cases, men naturally mentor their colleagues. This means that males can advance in an organization because they are come armed with insights and skills thru mentoring. When women reach out to other professional women in politics and in business, the more those statistics will change.

  • Fiona Gilligan

    As women we need to get better at profiling our accomplishments and being role models for other women. We need more female leaders to get out and spotlight themselves so that the next generation of women feel that leadership is reachable and doable. My passion is encouraging more women to take the leap into entrepreneurship. Many women in politics had previous career in business. @Fiona_Gilligan:twitter 

  • Emily Merkle

    To change the ratio, we can start by focusing on the stories of successful women in government - case in point is my hero, Hillary Clinton. She is hands down the most effective, respected, honest, direct leader - no, she is not a politician, she is a LEADER - who also happens to be female.

  • Carlottau

    I've worked in politics the last 10 to 15 years and I am a woman.  I think I am more effective not holding an elected seat but working behind the scenes. 

  • MjG

    It wasn't until World War II that the role of women in American society was offered the initial opportunity to evolve. The war created manufacturing needs that were traditionally fulfilled by men but, because one of the costs of the war meant a scarcity of men, those roles were instead filled by women.  This began the perceptual transformation of women from their traditional role as either housewives or sex symbols, to women as being capable of doing more, be it in business, politics, social activism,etc. 

    This evolution tipped with Women's Liberation movement of the 1960's and was cemented with the increasing divorce rate of the 1980's and 90's that more or less disintegrated the traditional family dynamic of previous generations and caused the need for mothers to singly have to nurture and provide for their family. 

    Essentially what this means is that since the founding fathers to WW2 in the 1940's you had just under 200 years of women being stereotyped into specific societal roles defined by what society's males believed those roles should be. That 200 years or so of thought started to crack in the 1960's and continues to this day, which is to say, over the last 50 or so years. 

    They say it takes at least one generation to change the prevailing thought of a society. This is based on the thought that the elders of a given generation will be replaced by that generations youngest, thus creating the opportunity for fresh thought to mature untainted by elder bias. In reality, the prejudices of one generation don't disappear once the next generation is conceived, instead they thin as they get passed down from one generation to the next until, over enough time, they are replaced. 

    If the average generation is 20 years or so, how long does it take to replace 200 years of prevailing thought as to the roles of women? We are making progress for sure, but that is a lot of learned behavior to reverse engineer. 

  • Sheila Bapat

     I've been a gender justice advocate for years, advocating and writing about this issue of gender disparity in US politics, and it's TERRIFIC to see Fast Company writing about this! Far fewer women than men choose to run for public office in the US. The reasons why women do not run are complex. Much has to do with the domestic sphere: women are still bearing the brunt of home/child responsibilities. As with the gender disparity in many high-powered career tracks, it is very challenging to focus on both home and an exhausting, ambitious career/political race. (See Anne Marie Slaughter's piece in the Atlantic from a couple weeks ago, "Why Women Can't Have it All.") There is a also some scholarship about the gendered differences in ambition: women are driven by their desire to make change in causes they feel passionately about, such as issues at their childrens' school or in their community, and this activism may lead to their decision to run for office. Whereas men who run for office do so out of a clear sense of their ambition - they want to be decision makers. (I have no value judgment about which is better - desire to make change or to lead out of ambition - but I do think our political institutions need both types of leaders.

    But when women DO run for office, they tend to win at the same rates as men. See an article by scholar Jennifer Lawless called "Why Don't Women Run for Office?" published in 2004 by Brown University.

    Once we see women and men leading along side one another in the US Congress and at the state legislative level, I think we will see shifts in policy priorities. I do think we will see a difference given that we now have 3 women on the Supreme Court. Check out my recent blog post,

    Thanks for the discussion and posing this question, Anjali!

  • Meanon

    Because we do not have aggressive enough term limits on congress. To say we need fresh blood in congress is an understatement.

  • Nicole

    I find that most women don't feel entitled to have these leadership roles. Even the most aggressive woman is not as bold as her male counterpart. It's cliche, and reeks of stereotyping, but I think most women are less likely to rock the boat for personal ambitions (as opposed to rocking the boat on behalf of the "team" or "group")