I go to lots of meetings with people who hold institutional leadership positions like mine — university presidents, corporate ceo’s, members of boards of directors, top-level executives and entrepreneurs. It’s obvious, observing these rooms, that women remain a distinct minority in executive leadership and corporate governance. It’s also obvious that the small group of elite women who have successfully integrated these once-all-male bastions are extraordinarily talented, almost always graceful while being very tough underneath their carefully composed pleasant exteriors, and usually very eager to downplay any discussion of gender differences.
On one of the several boards on which I sit, a remarkable woman has become the chief executive officer for the first time in the company’s history. At our last board meeting, members commented very favorably on her more inclusive and open approach to discussion and problem-solving, traits that women often manifest in leadership positions. The men who dominate the board are very proud of her and eagerly supportive, and yet, sometimes, the support sounds paternalistic, at once, sharper in criticism and more protective in direction, not unlike the guidance of a proud papa.
These issues come to mind because, last week, the White House Project on Women published their most recent study on women in leadership positions, and the results, while not surprising, remain disappointing. Women account for, on average, 18% of the top leaders in ten of the most prominent industries studied: academia, business, film, journalism, law, military, nonprofit, politics, religion, sports. While the study reveals that the general public say that they can accept women leaders by a very large majority, women’s actual participation in significant numbers in powerful leadership positions remains a relatively scarce commodity.
You can download and read the full report: click on Benchmarking Women’s Leadership.
Marie C. Wilson, founder and president of the White House Project on Women, wrote about this report in the “On Leadership” blog for the Washington Post. Her remarks echo the report’s call for renewed attention to improving gender balance in executive suites and board rooms. Sadly but predictably, the “comments” section of the online article includes numerous ignorant, sexist and downright vile attacks on women generally and specific women leaders. One of the more unfortunate consequences of online journalism’s highly participatory community is that extreme views now have entered mainstream outlets, giving even hate-filled rants more credence than is their due. If anyone doubts the continued presence of a virulent misogyny in this culture, just read some of the comments.
However, bright spots continue to illuminate the leadership landscape giving hope and inspiration to the rising generations. Last Monday evening, four terrific Trinity students attended the Women’s Forum of Washington, a group of women executives who come together frequently to discuss the challenges we face. The Women’s Forum wanted to hear from the rising generation of college women, and our Trinity Women inspired and amazed them all through the evening. Many thanks to Sydney Cross, Kamillah Matthews, Jaime Temple and Lorin Meeks-Harris for being such fantastic representatives of Trinity leadership! These students offered a great deal of hope and affirmation to all of the women leaders present. While women continue to face many challenges in the workplace and public arena, the strength, smarts and perseverance of Trinity Women continues to push the glass ceiling back a few centimeters every day!
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