Gender in Leadership

This is the fifth post in a series of entries from the UMass community celebrating Women’s History Month.

By Emily Pipes, M.A. Student, Department of History

We Can Do It
“We Can Do It!” Courtesy of:!.jpg

Women’s History Month provides historians with the opportunity to evaluate female roles within the capacity of their specific historical fields of study. As a gender and modern U.S. historian, this means analyzing the role of women in American society today and historicizing how women have come to occupy certain positions within American culture while being less present in others. It is imperative to acknowledge the strides women have made over the course of history and the vital role of women in shaping our nation; however, we must also recognize the glaring inequalities, double standards, and stereotypes that women face, and we must understand how they stand in the way of gender equity in this country.

The women’s rights activism of the 1960s and 1970s, inspired largely by second-wave feminism, gave way to a great deal of progress toward advancing female presence in the workforce and narrowing the gender wage gap. My current research endeavors surround the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which passed Congress in 1972. This amendment sought to guarantee equal rights to all citizens regardless of sex. The ERA failed to receive the necessary number of state ratifications in 1982 and was ultimately not passed into law. It was around this time, the 1980s and 1990s, that progress for women in the workforce seemed to decelerate, and, from 2000 up to the present, progress seems to have plateaued.

Today, there is still a striking disparity between female and male representation in leadership roles throughout the United States. Women earn 60 percent of all undergraduate degrees, as well as 60 percent of all master’s degrees. Furthermore, women earn 47 percent of all law degrees, 47 percent of all medical degrees, and 44 percent of master’s degrees in business and management. They comprise 59 percent of the college-educated, entry-level workforce, as well as 52 percent of all professional level jobs; and yet, despite these numbers, female leaders are few and far between.

The United States currently ranks 60th in women’s political empowerment on the Gender Gap Index. Women today comprise only 18.5 percent of all congressional seats. They hold only 20 percent of the Senate, and only 24.2 percent of state legislature seats. There are also only 10 female governors, and only 12 percent of the mayors of the 100 largest American cities are women. The numbers are even more dismal for women of color, who represent only 4.5 percent of the 113th Congress, 5 percent of state legislatures, and only 20.8 percent of female state legislators. Furthermore, women of color make up only 3.5 percent of governors and are mayors of only two of the nation’s 100 largest cities.

So, why are these numbers problematic? While I do not think it is valuable or productive to generalize the female leadership style as being cohesive and universally distinctive from that of men, it is important to have more female leadership, if only because women constitute 51 percent of American society. This should be reflected in government representation and leadership roles broadly, otherwise society perpetuates the idea that women are simply not interested in leadership, which just is not true. In order to achieve democratic legitimacy and universal political representation, women need to be a more dominant presence in American government. I do not believe that specific issues are “women’s issues” as the ramifications of policies such as those involving reproductive rights, women’s healthcare coverage, and violence against women have far-reaching implications that are not exclusive to women. Despite this, women need to have a voice in determining the policies that directly implicate their lives, regardless of whether or not they are categorized as “women’s issues.”

Wendy Davis Sneakers
Wendy Davis’ Filibuster Sneakers. Courtesy of:

This segues into the question of why women hold so few leadership positions: women struggle against gender specific barriers — both structural and cultural — embedded within society. Wendy Davis, the Texas gubernatorial nominee for the Democratic Party, (famous for her eleven-hour filibuster against Senate Bill 5, which would impose further restrictions on abortion regulations in Texas) has faced numerous sexist attacks from the media. She has been accused of abandoning her children to pursue her career and of manipulating her husband into paying for her law school. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton was referred to as “Nurse Ratched,” and a guest on the Bill O’Reilly show stated that a female president would be undermined by “PMS and mood swings.” Gordon Liddy, another conservative talk radio host, commented about Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, “Let’s hope that the key conferences aren’t when she’s menstruating or something, or just before she’s going to menstruate. That would be really bad. Lord knows what we would get then.”

Ban Bossy. Courtesy of:

The distinct challenges women face in earning leadership roles are implicit and pervasive within our society; however, there are many people devoted to raising awareness of these issues. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has devoted an entire book to this cause, entitled Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, in which she encourages women to assert themselves in the workforce and insists that women need to believe that they deserve leadership positions (although many find that her work does not adequately address obstacles specific to women of color or poor socioeconomic backgrounds). There is also a campaign entitled “Ban Bossy” devoted to encouraging girls to seek leadership positions and not to be deterred by being perceived as “bossy.” While these campaigns are both effective in drawing attention to absence of female leadership, the editor of Newsfeed, Jessica Roy, adds another layer to this complex issue and points out that both of these campaigns “send the message that instead of working to overthrow power structures that enable men to flourish as leaders and women to worry about being called bossy, it’s up to women to give in to existing male-dominated culture and become successful within its confines.”

So, the million-dollar question is this: how do we encourage female leadership in the face of implicit societal sexism? Unfortunately, there is not one specific solution that will fix this problem, it is far too complicated; however, it is important to ask ourselves: what can I do to ensure that I am not contributing to this systematic silencing of female voices? As a teaching assistant, I am going to make a more concerted effort to see that every voice in the classroom is heard. As a feminist, history serves as an invaluable tool in providing insight into the development of social constructions of gender and sex and a more nuanced understanding of the past. Not only will I work harder to discuss the often overlooked historical contributions women have made, but I will also make an effort to ensure that discussion sections are a safe space for everyone to participate, thus encouraging more universal involvement in class.


“Why We Need a Political Leadership Pipeline for Women of Color”

“Fact Sheet: The Women’s Leadership Gap”

“Attacks on Wendy Davis’ Life Story Follow Classic Sexist Playbook”

“Don’t Give a $*%& If You Call Me Bossy”

Relevant Links:

Harvard Law Bulletin: “Leading Women”

Ban Bossy — I’m not bossy. I’m the boss.

Sheryl Sandberg: “We We Have Too Few Women Leaders”

The Representation Project

Saturday Night Live: Sarah Palin/Hilary Clinton Opening

“Top 50 Most Sexist Quotes on the Campaign Trail”


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