Jeanine Cogan
Executive coach

Jeanine Cogan

Heads Cogan Coaching and is on the faculty of the Center for Continuing and Professional Education at Georgetown University.


A long way to go

Q: The number of women ambassadors to the U.S. has grown dramatically in recent years -- a phenomenon that some attribute to female U.S. Secretaries of State, particularly Hillary Clinton. How important are trailblazers to the sucess of others? And if they are important, why didn't an earlier generation of women leaders like Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi or British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher lead to a surge of women in positions of political power?

What a juicy topic -- women in positions of political leadership.

Hillary Rodham Clinton may be most appreciated for blazing the trail for someone else -- a different woman to become president. As an experienced, skilled and shrewd female contender for the most powerful position in the country, Clinton "warmed up" and tested out the possibility of a woman as president with the American people.They weren't ready.

I will not do an analysis of Clinton as a presidential candidate, as so many people have weighed in on that topic. What I will do at this time is address the question of gender and political success.

No matter how much we celebrate progress on eliminating gender disparities, the simple truth is that we still have a long way to go.

Let's look at the gender distribution in the U.S. Congress. In 2009, 83 percent of members of Congress were male (441) and 17 percent were female (92). This was slightly lower than the 2009 global average for female representation at the parliamentary level, which was 18.6 percent.

When we look at the life of the U.S. Senate, which was established in 1789, there have been only 38 women total in more than 200 years! Given that females make up more than 50 percent of the population, this representation (or lack thereof) in positions of political leadership is striking.

Additionally, while over half of all Master's degrees are now awarded to women, 95 percent of senior-level managers, of the top Fortune 1000 industrial and 500 service companies are men. These facts lead to a trend that has been termed the "glass ceiling", where the advancement of women in the workforce is limited due to sex discrimination.

One of the challenges for women in political leadership positions is the role of expectations. Although women often have to exert their masculine qualities to even enter into the political landscape, if they are too aggressive and unemotional they tend to be judged harshly with descriptors such as "strident" and "pushy". People expect women to display an often impossible balance of both compassion and strength in a way that that is feminine but not too "soft".

How do we as women navigate the expectations placed upon us in positions of political leadership and rise to success anyhow? That is the million dollar question. One response many women in business have chosen is to get off the traditional work track all together and create their own businesses with themselves as top dog. That is certainly the path I took and it is the best career decision to date.

When you see yourself as a leader in your life what are you doing well in that domain? What is one action you can commit to that will further strengthen your leadership skills and effectiveness?

By Jeanine Cogan  |  January 28, 2010; 12:05 AM ET  | Category:  women Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Ability wins the day | Next: Not many Jobs these days

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company