What Happens When Women Run the World?

From the C-Suite to the Senate, Women Leaders Put Gender Equality First

What would it take to achieve gender parity? How far are we from that goal?

The pay gap, one barometer of progress, hasn’t budged in a decade, according to a new study from the American Association of University Women. For every dollar earned by a man, a woman earns 79 cents. That chasm is considerably wider for black and Latino women, and for women with children.

Women who forge ahead face other challenges. In academia, in the male-dominated STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, instances of sexual harassment are being documented with increasing frequency. And if women pursue projects that primarily benefit other women, the obstacles can be particularly daunting. Recent news accounts highlight these struggles, from one entrepreneur’s Silicon Valley quest to find investors for a hiring website that would make corporate America friendlier to women, to the years of frustration an engineer and her female business partner endured while seeking funding for tampon technology that could give early warning of cancer and reproductive diseases.

Naming the problem can, in itself, mark a kind of progress: on the elite conference circuit, the ubiquity of all-male panels is being called out on social media. At this year’s World Economic Forum, more than three-quarters of the speakers and moderators were men. Despite that fact (or perhaps because of it), “women” was one of the five-day Davos gathering of global elites’ most-Tweeted topics.

One path to change is leadership—when women lead, their skills and contributions are more likely to be recognized, and they in turn are more likely to acknowledge the accomplishments of other women. In advance of an upcoming Zócalo Public Square event with Time political correspondent and New America Fellow Jay Newton-Small asking “Are Women Changing the Way Institutions Are Run?”, we posed a related question to several women leaders: What is the single biggest change we’ve seen as a result of women in leadership roles?

Tracie Powell

We’re no longer talking in whispers about what’s important

From equal pay to safe spaces for breastfeeding, the single biggest change we’ve seen as a result of women in leadership is that they are now talking more openly about women’s issues.

Women are speaking out more about patterns of sexism, periods, sex, sexuality, fat-shaming, feminism, leaning in, and leaning out. The rise of women in workplaces is central to why we’re talking so much more, and so publicly, about issues that used to be whispered about, if spoken about at all.

This, of course, is a good thing. It allows women to share with each other, and with the world, about how best to overcome the challenges they face. Talking about these issues has undoubtedly empowered women and allowed them to make room for other women not only to rise up, but also to feel more comfortable with power inside boardrooms, locker rooms, and yes, bedrooms too.

Unfortunately, though, all of the talk hasn’t led to significant change when it comes to earnings, nor has it led to a diversity of women at the top.

Overall, women still make less than men for doing the same work. For black and Hispanic women, the pay gap is much worse. Though black women are the most educated of all demographic groups reported in the U.S. Census, they earn only 60 cents to every white man’s dollar, while Hispanic women earn 55 cents. Women of color hold only 3 percent of the board seats of Fortune 500 companies.

This means that the conversations currently taking place as a result of there being more women in leadership roles are all too often leaving out women of color.

That’s something we all need to talk about.

Tracie Powell is founder and editor of All Digitocracy in Washington, D.C., a JSK Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, and the chair of the Digital Journalism Taskforce with the National Association of Black Journalists.

Kristin Cobble

Women have fostered a more supportive, happier work environment

As someone who advises leaders and leadership teams, I see great potential—emphasis on potential—for women in leadership roles to improve how corporations and organizations perform.

When two or more women join a leadership team, I often witness greater integration of personal and professional life, of emotional and mental life, and of the masculine and feminine, not only for the leadership team but also for the whole organization.

I often see solid support for flexible work hours and openness regarding where people work (home or office), which creates happier and more loyal employees. This increases retention, reduces recruiting costs, but perhaps most importantly, makes it easier for employers to preserve organizational knowledge.

There is definitely more attention paid to how decisions will impact employees and the communities in which the organizations reside. In terms of the leadership team itself, the quality of the conversations increases, as the women ask more questions, thus enhancing the thinking and decision making of their leadership team.

However, when I think about the women I’ve known who are CEOs or top executives, many of them have had stay-at-home husbands. In these cases, these women have shown a lot of sympathy for women in the ranks of their organizations. But surprisingly they have not had nearly as much sympathy for other women aspiring to the C-suite. The attitude too often is: if you want to be an executive, there are sacrifices that you have to make.

Most of the women leaders I know are in their 40s or older. I’m eager to see if the rising generation of women leaders, as they become CEOs, will wholeheartedly support both men and women in creating a more healthy work environment.

Kristin Cobble, co-founder and president of Groupaya, has coached and consulted for leaders and leadership teams for the last 20-plus years.

Lori Bettison-Varga

Strong women leaders beget more strong women leaders

Women’s leadership has resulted in a growing awareness of systemic societal inequities that are broken down only by the arduous and passionate fight for change.

One of the most challenging labels a woman leader can give herself is “feminist.” The concept is multi-layered and deeply misunderstood. My simple working definition of feminism is “the pursuit of equality of opportunity.”

The embodiment of that pursuit has changed over time, represented differently by each generation of women leaders. Women leaders who pushed to advance gender equality have given women the right to vote, created the acceptance of women balancing career and family, and produced cracks in the glass ceiling—all paving the way for a society where more women than men graduate from college and no career is out of bounds.

More recent voices have pushed the agenda beyond gender, recognizing that past movements spoke more easily to the issues of white, middle-class women—women who were already in privileged positions. We see the change in circumstances recognized as Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook moves from her book calling for ‘leaning in’ to a more recent and nuanced understanding of women who have barriers more challenging than their gender alone.

I like to think that women in leadership positions are more purpose-driven, empathetic, collaborative, and self-aware than men in leadership positions. But, I have met many men who lead with the ‘servant leadership’ model largely ascribed to women.

I do believe, though, that without women in leadership positions the drive to the ideal—true equality of opportunity—would have been far slower. And this drive to equality of opportunity must continue, with women and men in leadership positions joining together to advance a society that truly embodies the goals to which we aspire—the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness for every individual in our society.

Lori Bettison-Varga, PhD, is president and director of the Natural History Family of Museums in Los Angeles. She served six years as President and W.M. Keck Foundation Presidential Chair at Scripps College in Claremont, California.

Lorena Gonzalez

Women leaders are much more visible, which in itself is progress

The single biggest change this nation has seen as a result of women in visible leadership roles is the rise of a new archetypical American woman. Girls today are surrounded by images of women leading—Carly Fiorina and Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail. Patty Murray and Elizabeth Warren leading in the U.S. Senate. Mia Love and Jaime Herrera Beutler in the U.S. House of Representatives.

No matter what party you prefer, women are at the forefront, changing the face of our nation. These women have helped create a new type of role model for our nation’s girls—American women are ambitious, self-starting, smart and, of course, independent.

Only 100 years after the first woman was elected to Congress, progress has been swift and considerable. However, we are very far from the dream of our foremothers. Women of color are grossly underrepresented in our government at all levels. Voter registration and participation among women is rising, but not equally among women of color.

The work that remains is as significant as our advances. In today’s political climate, women are under attack. Our rights, our freedoms, and our voice hang in the balance. We must be grateful for those who came before us, who broke through ceiling after ceiling. We must hold them close to our nation’s history. And we must, above all else, seize this moment and finally make our voice the nation’s voice.

Lorena González is a former migrant farmworker from Central Washington now serving as a Seattle City Councilmember after a decade-long career as a noted civil rights attorney.

Lauren Kuby

Issues affecting families are front and center

As women increasingly take up leadership roles in public policy, issues of economic and social justice that impact families are moving front and center in local, state, and national politics. And women are getting stuff done.

We saw this scenario play out when women activists championed child labor laws and the 40-hour workweek a century ago. Whether it’s equal pay, earned sick days, or the minimum wage—all these issues impact women disproportionately and, ultimately, their families.

When a woman earns 79 percent of what a man earns for the same job, her entire family suffers. When 75 percent of service workers, a majority of them women, work without earned sick day benefits, when they must choose between a paycheck and taking care of a loved one, the entire family suffers. When a single mom working full time for minimum wage is forced to work another job to cover the rent, her entire family suffers.

With the U.S. Congress in gridlock, and states like Arizona weakening worker protections, local women leaders—now empowered by elective office—are striving to improve the quality of life for our constituents and make a difference in the lives of many.

Tempe, Arizona, City Councilmember Lauren Kuby is a long-time community leader who has served as an advocate for social, economic, and environmental justice, sustainable communities, and renewable energy.

Robin M. Kramer

We’re gaining influence in the “room where it happens”

Over the course of many decades of community service, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the “room where it happens.”

Both the “room” and what happens are changing in our country because women in leadership positions are increasingly not just present, but influential. This is both metaphorically and literally the case—if not everywhere, for sure in the public, nonprofit, religious, cultural, entrepreneurial small business, and philanthropic sectors.

The musical Hamilton captures the spirit of what I’m describing—the good, bad, and ugly of political decision-making: “Two Virginians and an immigrant walk into a room/Diametric’ly opposed, foes/They emerge with a compromise, having opened doors that were /Previously closed/Bros.” And… “no one else/was in the room where it happened.”

To generalize about “all women” is to paint with an offensive brush, but it is a fact that women—including women leaders—of diverse races, cultures, hairstyles, and generations were for centuries shut out of the rooms of leadership and decision making. Progress has certainly been made in this regard, though for sure the gender gap exists, to the detriment of all, in the leadership of major institutions in our country.

Politics, the art of the possible, is found everywhere—in families, communities, all sectors of our society. It’s so much easier to get to no than yes. Women help get to yes. Why? Because most women in those decision-making rooms—in public spaces, community centers and around kitchen tables—are at least 30 percent less captivated than the guys by that magic three-letter, two-syllable word: ego. The issues women raise matter, and help form new societal agendas, galvanize attention, change the conversation and change lives.

Exceptional women leaders help the public square expand rather than contract, and ensure the rooms are filled with the respectful if wild noise of democracy. The example of women leaders is inviting, and demonstrates that determination and kindness combined are strengths, and that the art of the possible is indeed art. And possible.

Robin Kramer served as chief of staff to Los Angeles mayors Antonio Villaraigosa and Richard Riordan, the first woman to hold this post in the nation’s second largest city. She is currently Executive Director of Harbor Freight Tools for Schools.