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Zara Kessler: Why don’t more women lead?

What’s keeping women from the top ranks of U.S. business and politics? This week, the Pew Research Center released a report on women and leadership, which included some intriguing bits.

When asked in November about reasons “why there aren’t more women in top executive business positions,” only 23 percent of American adults surveyed said a major reason is that “women’s responsibilities to family don’t leave time for running a major corporation.” Another 35 percent thought family was a minor reason, while 40 percent thought it wasn’t a reason. Similarly, only 17 percent agreed that the relative scarcity of women in high political offices stems largely from family responsibilities. Another 32 percent thought it a minor reason, with 48 percent believing it wasn’t a reason at all.

Instead, more commonly cited factors were women being held to higher standards and an unreadiness to choose women for top positions.

The paucity of female leaders probably has roots that stretch far deeper than the family tree. But surely some women never even get within shouting distance of “high political offices” or “top executive positions” because they’ve already been sidetracked by childbirth. In an October 2013 Pew survey, 40 percent of current or past working mothers said that being a working mother made it harder to advance in their jobs or careers.

Claire Suddath delves into our nation’s maternity-leave problem in the newest issue of Bloomberg Businessweek. The U.S. is the world’s only developed country that does not provide some form of paid maternity leave. Yet better maternity leave isn’t a sure path to advancement either. A woman in Sweden, where parents are allowed 480 days of paid leave between them, told Suddath: “It’s understood that a woman who becomes a mother cannot have the same career as a man.”

One potential solution is for women to delay child rearing. In the new Pew report, 46 percent of adult millennials (born after 1980) suggested that women desiring to reach top executive positions in business are better off having kids later in their careers, compared with 30 percent of those in the Silent generation (born 1928-1945). About one-in-five adults overall thought that women seeking to climb to the top of the business ladder are better off not having kids at all.

Forgoing children has obvious downsides for society, such as jeopardizing its continued existence. So what other policies work? Suddath wrote that offering fathers leave makes it less likely that employers will hesitate to hire young women. The same logic could be applied to promotions, though all of this seems contingent upon enough men utilizing the option. On Thursday, President Barack Obama made the symbolic gesture of signing a presidential memorandum directing federal agencies “to advance up to six weeks of paid sick leave for parents with a new child,” according to a White House fact sheet.

Still, our nation’s babies are not holding up the glass ceiling alone. The new Pew report notes that, given the choice, 53 percent of all adults (and 48 percent of millennial adults) selected the projection that “even as more women move into management roles, men will continue to hold more top executive positions in business in the future” over the notion that with more women going into management roles, it’s only a matter of time before as many women as men fill top business positions.

Sure, according to the report, 73 percent of adults expect the country to elect a female president in their lifetime. But for young American women, it’s still a long and winding corridor to the corner office.

Zara Kessler writes for Bloomberg News.