While women make up more than half of the U.S. population and nearly 52 percent of these women hold professional-level jobs, only 14.6 percent end up as executive officers, according to the latest statistics from the Center for American Progress. This figure tells us what many women already know: In spite of gains in the workplace, plenty of today’s career-oriented woman are still struggling to break the glass ceiling.
To understand why, it helps to take a closer look at how female leadership roles develop and evolve in both the private and public sector. Are women better off exploring leadership positions with the government or working for private firms and corporations? With Hillary Clinton gunning for the most executive position in the country, the outlook is not all that bad. Even so, it’s clear that challenges remain - both in the government and the private sector.
Elle Magazine’s list of the 10 most powerful women in Washington featured women, who have overcome many challenges in the White House and beyond, providing us with inspiration on what it takes to succeed in an otherwise male-dominated sector. Author Rachel Combe emphasizes how many of these women are key players, leading their teams and colleagues to great levels of success.
It’s not news that women have the skills needed to excel, though opportunity is a different story. According to the International Federation of Business and Professional Women, women tend to have the chops to become transformational leaders.
These leaders inspire people to follow them by working on gaining their trust and respect before attempting to persuade or change their views. They encourage a mutual relationship among everyone they work with, regardless of role or status. The experts at Business Professional Women's (BPW) International point out that women have a tendency to encourage participation and collaboration when running an organization. Unlike men, they rarely use threats to change behavior, instead focusing on improving performance. They also have the ability to work with a clear vision, and earn people’s trust because of that.
All of these traits and characteristics allow them to play a pivotal role in both private and public sector jobs. But to what extent? Women in top management positions and on corporate boards are stalling, according to the Center for American Progress, with only nine percent of women remaining in top management positions.
Overall, it appears women have excelled more in the public sector than in the private.
Women make up 34.4 percent of senior executive services (SES) in the federal government compared with 14.6 percent of senior leadership roles in the private sector. The study highlights the fact that women have filled more leadership roles within the public sector than in the private sector - a trend we see more of at the federal level.
There are few skills unique to men or women, but the argument that men are better leaders innately has been definitively debunked.
In fact, the same skills that are rewarded in men can hinder women, and traditionally feminine leadership traits are downplayed in spite of their importance in a professional workplace. For example, a recent study shows that female executives outshine their male counterparts when it comes to fostering a collaborative environment. Collaboration, along with other traits, such as compassion and honesty, are cornerstones of good leadership. Unfortunately, popular opinion still regards men and stereotypically male traits as superior. Due to this discrepancy, some organizations are taking a stand to level the playing field.
Anne Abraham, founder and CEO of LeadWomen, says, “The Commonwealth has successfully achieved significant levels of women in political leadership in some regions. The same emphasis must now be placed on women in senior leadership roles in public and private offices.”
More women are taking the lead on representing their female colleagues and counterparts in board meetings; leading critical planning and development discussions; and serving as key decision makers for an organization. However, women are still underrepresented, regardless of industry and fail to meet anywhere near the employment level of their male counterparts in executive and leadership positions.
So what’s it going to take for more women to fill positions of power in the private and public sector? While it appears that more leadership job opportunities within the federal government are available - or accessible -- to women, women who are pursuing career growth in the private sector, may have a more difficult time. As I’ve written about before, it is up to leadership to recognize female talent and to provide the opportunities to excel.
Women can also consider working with a mentor, or furthering their education, to explore high-level management positions. Some companies offer formal mentorship programs for internal employees so they can partner with an experienced executive and learn the ropes to get ahead in the organization.
Another option is to develop stronger interpersonal and team-building skills to serve as a leader at every opportunity within the organization. This can encourage managers to take notice and increase the chances of a promotion.
Women are still struggling to break through the glass ceiling in many organizations, but many do find rewarding leadership opportunities both in the private and in the public sector. While many firms and corporations in the private sector encourage women to join the organization and grow their careers, others are finding opportunities to excel working for the federal government.
At the end of the day, I believe we are amidst a cultural shift toward better inclusivity. It took much more effort for the women before us, and it will take extra effort for women today. But someday our hard work will pay off for the women of tomorrow.