Women are Leading But Where’s the Power?

It’s March 8th and I’m celebrating International Women’s Day.
While I recognize March as Women’s Month every year, I find myself particularly interested in the cause of women’s progress this year.
Perhaps it’s because I feel passionate about the attack on women’s rights that has rallied the cause for women this year in the U.S. Many states are targeting repressive, regressive legislation aimed at exercising state power over women’s bodies in alarming and unacceptable ways.  I was under the impression that we settled these issues in the Supreme Court in 1973 but it looks as though there is a group of people who want to re-litigate women’s control over their bodies in the year 2012.
But my ire is also aroused by looking at the mostly dismal statistics of women’s progress on nearly every front of leadership and economic power.
Yes, we’ve come a long way baby (recalling the days when women had their own cigarette brand) since the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention that formulated woman’s suffrage rights;  winning of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution that gave women the right to vote and the revolutionary uprising of the feminist movement of the 60’s and 70’s led by fiery leaders like former Congresswoman and Equal Rights Amendment advocate Bella Abzug  and Ms Magazine founder, Gloria Steinem.
Checking on the benchmarks for women’s progress, I find most of the markers discouraging.  When it comes to achieving positions of leadership, across industries, professions and political representation, the numbers tell a story of surprisingly slow progress.  The truth is that there is a huge leadership and wealth gap between the genders.
On International Women’s Day 2012, men continue to run most major institutions, make most of the money and most of the important political, executive and policy decisions in the world.   Consequently, it’s not surprising that women’s “issues” are not being adequately represented in the halls of powers, wherever they are.

The Facts Mam

The World of Work  

  • Research from the 2011 Grant Thornton International Business Report found that women now hold 20% of senior management positions globally, down from 24% in 2009 and up just 1% from 2004. In its quarterly survey of privately held businesses (PHBs) Grant Thornton also found that the percentage of PHBs that have no women in their senior management has risen to 38% compared to 35% in 2009.
  • The report also showed that G7 countries lag behind the global average with only 16% of women holding senior roles while, regionally, Asia-Pacific (excl. Japan) scores highest with 27%.
  • Women have become most successful in increasing their share of senior management roles in Thailand, Hong Kong, Greece, Belgium and Botswana, where the percentage of women in these roles has risen by at least 7% since 2009.
  • Only 3.6% of Fortune 500 CEO’s are women. Globally, only 8% of companies have a female CEO. However, in Asian economies, Thailand leads the way with 30% of companies employing female CEO’s followed by China (19%) Taiwan (18%) and Vietnam at 16%


  • While women make up 49% of the workforce (with 70% of all women working outside the home) the gender wage gap persists.  For the same job performed, women make on average $6 per hour less than men.
  • The good news: women make up about 40% of all managers
  • 59% of all low wage workers are women, down from 63% ten years ago
  • Only 16% of board directors and corporate officers are women. 
  • In law, while women make up half of law students, less than 1/5 of law firm partners, federal judges, law school deans and Fortune 500 counsels are female
  • While half of the Divinity school students are women, only 3% of the pastors in large Protestant congregations are women


  • Women and men are graduating from college at essentially the same rates.
  • Women outnumber men in terms of college enrollment. In 2012, they’re expected to earn 63% of master’s degrees and 54% of doctoral and professional degrees.
  • Only ¼ of full professors are women and only 1/5 of college presidents are female

Family & Marriage

  • Despite passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act of ’93 which allowed for up to 12 weeks of maternity and paternity leave, it’s up to states and employers whether this leave is paid. Mostly it is not and many new parents can’t afford to take the time off. There is also still a stigma attached to taking so much time off in many organizations.
  • Working mothers tend to earn 2.5% less than women without children, mostly because many are passing on higher paying positions that demand more time. There’s also speculation that this choice still has much to do with women still doing the bulk of childcare and domestic responsibilities.
  • Fewer Americans are married now than at any point in the last 50 years – 45% of this number is women. Many women are waiting longer to marry with the average age now 26. They’re also waiting longer to have children – in 2008 more than 1/3 of first time mothers were over 30.

Electoral Representation

  • In the ’08 Presidential election, 66% of women voted vs. 62% of men However, of all female voters only 52% were women ages 18-24.
  • Only 17% of the U.S. Senate are women and only 16.8% in the House of Representative. The U.S.ranks 71st in female legislative representation, behind Bangladesh, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates
  • 3 of 9 Supreme Court justices are women
  • Of 50 state governors, 3 are female.  Of the largest 100 cities, only 9% have female mayors

The “Boy-Centric” Movie Business

  • In 2011, 95% of the top-grossing films were directed by men – the number has decreased since ’98
  • 4 women have been nominated for Oscars as best director – one has won
  • In the 2011 nominations 84% went to male screenwriters and 70% to movies starring men. 77% of all Oscar voters are male


What’s Taking So Long? 

The agonizingly slow progress of women can no longer be blamed on the old excuses. Women are abundantly represented in education and in most sectors of the economy. Despite the demographics, women still rarely manage to make it to the top levels of business, technology, education, religion, the law and governance.
According to Kathryn Kolbert, director of the Athena Center for Leadership at Barnard College, women’s advancement has flat lined in recent years, “We made great progress in the 1970’s and life has changed significantly, but progress for women has plateaued in rights, in leadership and in the ability to contribute equally in social and cultural affairs.”
While (fortunately) analysis of the paralysis of women’s power is moving front and center, feminist movement pioneer Gloria Steinem believes we’re experiencing a backlash to the previous period of rapid social evolution. “Classically speaking, resistance to change comes at two points. The first is right at the beginning, when you break the rules and people say, No, women can’t do that. And the second comes when you reach a critical mass, as if the other group might have great influence or, in the case of women, might actually outnumber them. We’re now in the second stage of resistance.”
But wait…. I began this post by saying that I’m celebrating women’s day – and I am.
It’s not all griping about the glacial pace at which we women are taking our rightful place in every level of global society. The great news is that in researching this piece and looking for examples of women to profile, I was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of strong, brilliant, visionary women in every corner of the globe working for transformation.
Women are shaking things up, championing new models of education and fostering a new generation of compassionate leadership.  They’re protecting our planet while finding ingenious ways to accommodate sustainable living.  But most important, they’re challenging the status quo with remarkable clarity of purpose. Some work quietly and diligently, courageously forging new paths. Others are noisy and brash, giving the proverbial middle finger to norms that no longer serve our rapidly evolving diverse cultures.

Brilliant and Bold 

 Meet:  Julie Zeilinger. Like many teens today, Julie struggled with negative body self-images.   But unlike most teens, Julie’s curiosity led her to research the injustices and atrocities against so many of the women in the world, like the horrors of female infanticide. Computer in hand, Julie transformed the cultural pressures of body image into a highly successful blog F-Bomb, which gets about 30,000 hits each month.  Her book, A Little F’d Up: Why Feminism is not a dirty word, is due to be released shortly.
 Meet: Lilly Ledbetter. After working for twenty years at Goodyear Tire and receiving promotions and    recognition for her work, Lilly discovered that she was being paid 20% less than the lowest paid male supervisor in her plant. Shocked by the revelation, Lilly set out to fight the injustices deliberately carried out against her as an employee and sued. While Lilly won initially, the Supreme Court took the case and decided for Goodyear by one vote. Hearing about the case, a newly elected President Obama, championed legislation that became law as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.
 Meet: Lorella Zanardo. When she got her MBA in the 1980’s, Lorella was told that women had no place in big business. She persisted and contacted Unilever once a month until she got a job. Eventually she became their first female manager. But Lorella would take on another big established interest in Italian society – sexism in television programming. In 2009, Lorella produced a film called Women’s Bodies. The controversial film went viral on the internet. Some say that it was Lorella’s film that paved the way for the ouster of former Prime Minister and political fixture, Silvio Berlusconi.
 Meet: Malalai Joya. Called the “bravest woman in Afghanistan,” Malalai made headlines in 2003 when a YouTube video went viral showing her taking on her “fellow” members of the Loya Jirga Assembly debating the future of the Afghani constitution. Called prostitute, demonized and threatened by the mob of men, she ran for political office and won in 2005. Still living in isolation in safe houses and having survived several assassination attempts, Malalai is a model of a woman’s courage under the most dangerous of circumstances.

 Meet: Cindy Gallop. Trust me, you’ll find this brief TED Talk by Cindy compelling, to say the least. After 16 years in marketing and advertising with Bartel Bogle Hegarty Global Brand Group, Cindy turned her considerable influence to remaking young men’s mindsets about sexuality. I’ll let her tell you how she came to understand how problematic this issue has become for anyone interested in healthy sexuality. As a result of her awareness, Cindy created the film, Make Love Not Porn. Cindy understands that cultural sexism is intimately interconnected with institutional sexism.
 Meet: Thelma Golden. Director and chief curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Thelma carved her giant footprint in the art world as a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art.  Visioning herself as a “curator” at the age of 12, she is by far the most powerful, influential and fearless curator of her generation. Golden coined the phrase “post-black” as part of the lexicon of contemporary art discourse to liberate the art made by blacks from labeling constraints that for centuries had kept it marginalized. She has made the Studio Museum an internationally recognized cultural institution.
All of these courageous and fascinating women give me hope. Today is a day to stand and cheer for them and for all the millions of women, mainly working “invisibly” to create a new world – a better world, we hope, for all.
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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