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Under-Representation of Women in Corporate and Political Offices

Women In Corporate and Political OfficesWomen comprise more than half the population in the US (157 million compared to 151.8 million men) according to 2010 Census data. Based on numbers released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women represent 46.6% of the US labor force. It stands to reason then, that women’s representation in executive roles across corporate and political offices should also align with those percentages, right? Clearly this is not the case.

By The Numbers

- 16.6% of Fortune 500 company directors are women [up from 16.1% last year]
- 14.3% of Fortune 500 company executives are women [up from 14.1% last  year]
- 8.1% of top earners in the Fortune 500 are female [up from 7.5%]

These stats are highlights from a new Catalyst research group study on women in Fortune 500 companies. If I were a woman, I’d be indignant at the makeup [no pun intended] of corporate America; as a man, I don’t take it personally but it certainly gives me reason to reflect.  Why are so few women in senior roles?  Women are no less capable than men of performing at these levels, yet the executive representation is sorely lacking.

Women still wield a great amount of power in the US as evidenced in the last Presidential election. According to CNN’s exit polls, 55% of women and 45% of men voted for the winner, President Obama, whereas only 44% of women and 52% of men voted for challenger, Mitt Romney. In political office however,  in the US  at least, the inclusion of women is moving at a similar “snail’s pace.”  Prior to the 2012 US federal election, according to the Women & Politics Institute in Washington, DC, the percentage of women in US elected offices were:

- US Senators: 17.0%
- Members of U.S House of Representatives: 16.8%
- State Governors: 12%
- Statewide Elected Officials: 22.4%
- State Legislators: 23.6%
- Mayors of the 100 Largest Cities: 8:0%

The United States still ranks only 79th in the world in terms of women’s political representation (tied with Morocco and Venezuela at last check), based on data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Why Such a Discrepancy in Representation?

The fact remains that for personal, cultural or religious reasons many women choose to take time out of the corporate world – on a part-time or permanent basis – to work at raising their families. Yes, men are also choosing to stay at home to manage the family and kids but that number is still very small.  According to Census data, there are 176,000 men in the US who claim to be “stay-at-home dads”.  That number has doubled since the last census but still only represents .08 percent of married couples with one parent at home. Throw in dads who work at home (freelance, contract work, etc.) and take care of the kids as a result and that number is still just under 3%.

I’m by no means suggesting that this is the main or sole reason that women are not better represented in corporate or political leadership, yet this reality skews the expectation of a 50/50 balance doesn’t it?


Research identifies that in families where both parents work outside the home, regardless of who has the higher income, the wife still performs the lion’s share of all house-related work duties as well as childcare duties – cooking, cleaning, bill paying, appointment scheduling etc.  Are women less likely to commit to a career path that may require even more of their limited time and energy?

This post is not an answer, it’s a question.  Why the under-representation of women in corporate and political offices?

Can we/should we expect 50/50 representation in senior roles? Are women poorly represented at the boardroom table and across elected offices because of a glass ceiling established by men? A by-product of culture?  Or do not enough women seek such office?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Sam Fiorella
Feed Your Community, Not Your Ego

Graph Image Credit: Philip N. Cohen
Image Credit: Pixabay, via Creative Commons License


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JoeCardillo 5pts

I have a huge amount of respect for everyone here but I disagree with almost everything said so far.


 @samfiorella  "On a side note, can you imagine what our world would be if men were primary caregivers? EEEK. (I'm only 1/2 joking)."

*Culturally, it would scare the pants off of a lot of people. Biologically/scientifically, it might not be a big deal at all. Unfortunately there is not yet a large statistical sample to break down, but so far there's no evidence of men being unable to parent. My brother is a great SAHD and also handles the "lion's share" of household responsibilities in addition to being the primary wage earner. He does fine, as do many SAHDs, including my brother-in-law. We know from research that maternal instinct is hardwired, but there is very little research into men being hardwired for parenting....probably because it's not culturally acceptable yet. What will be interesting (and possibly put the idea to rest that men aren't really wired for parenting) is when we have significant analysis of parenting by two men (anecdotally, what I said above holds true as well for gay men I know who parent, though it's only two couples). Per my note below asking @rebelbrown about research, there's also emerging evidence that parenting is connected to brain chemical makeup, and not some essential male or female-ness. Gender is not nearly as rigid as we once thought.


Re: Opportunity / tradeoffs for women in the workplace. You're all smarter than me, have more years of experience, and a great deal of passion. But I wonder if there is a huge blindspot happening here.


To pose a question: you have made it, you are working professionals, and very good at your respective fields of tech/startups/PR/marketing/communications.  Do you believe that you got here because you are good at what you do, and not because of some arbitrary categorical distinction (gender, race, religion, etc...)? I hope so. But I'd suspect you had some help along the way. 


@ginidietrich @rebelbrown @profkrg  I don't doubt for a second that you all are successful because you work incredibly long hours***, have made sacrifices, cared about learning lessons, and refused to bow to misogyny in the workplace. But this idea that women have all the opportunities that men do and are simply opting out because they want to be parents or focus on homelife or can't hack it, I just can't buy that. You are GREAT EXAMPLES of how women can be as successful as men in business, and you blazed your own trail. I don't think you did it because you are women, I think you did it because you are good, but access is and always has been the key to success. And access is always a matter of privilege, even when intentions are good.


I'd argue that the reason women aren't in senior executive positions in large numbers is because privilege is still operating, both overtly and covertly. When a board full of men votes another man into their circle they can all be perfectly nice people and hey maybe you've even had drinks with them or gotten to know their wonderful families, but they are still subconsciously protecting their privilege. And you know what, it's bad for everyone. It's infuriating to women and it makes men dumber. Variety is good. Especially when that variety includes giving 51% of the population the voice / representation they deserve.


I know I'm getting long winded here, but just a couple of final points:


1) Politics is a great example of how this problem is changing. Love him or hate him, President Obama has made it a priority to appoint well qualified women to higher offices. The U.S. Senate has more women than ever. Tammy Baldwin, who I worked for in Wisconsin, is now the first openly gay senator we've ever had. And you know what, they didn't get there in a vacuum, they got there because they had support from men and women along the way who wanted it to be different. If you want it to be different you have to make it different. To every old school male dominated company or organization that says they "are always open to women but there aren't any that are qualified" (I'm looking at you, Davos) I say take a page from Etsy's play book ( http://qz.com/52277/etsy-figured-out-how-to-fin-more-women-engineers/ ) and then come back and tell us the same thing.


2)  @samfiorella @profkrg The Etsy example above is my response to your desire to simply promote the best people. My point is: it's not as simple as posting a job and then saying, "why didn't any qualified women show up?"

If you have never seen an ocean or body of water before and someone takes you out on a boat and drops you in, will you drown? I won't belabor the point, but suffice it to say you can't just throw people out there and then use their failure to reinforce your point. Everyone has help on the way up and like Gini said it's up to all of us change this paradigm. 


Ok I'm done (except for the footnote below on hours) Thanks for (I hope) humoring me.


- Joe



***Who's to say the long hours are good for men or women? I think there's a kind of old school built-in "ism" to measuring someone's ability by how many hours they can work. I've seen people do in 5 hours what others do in 20, and even w/research and the widely known and tested 80/20 principle we still seem to think that the problem is women have to choose between parenting / homelife and corporate success. Of course I'm not dumb, I get that there are companies/orgs where expectations are just higher. But if the upper echelon of business has to cut from 120 hours a week expected to 80 and someone's husband has to share parenting 50/50 then fine, that's a cost we better be willing to pay to get the voice of women into senior leadership roles. If we don't we are sabotaging ourselves.








AmyMccTobin 5pts

Shame on me not reading this post - it's something I am PASSIONATE about.  I read about it over on Spin Sucks.


WE need to make it happen, and by that I mean women. @ginidietrich covered it in her www.spinsucks.com post, and I think she's right. WE need to GO AFTER those jobs if we want them, and we need to help each other along.

ginidietrich 5pts

I just read that organizers of Davos were concerned about the small number of women attending so they asked organizations to open up invitations to senior-level women who were not necessarily on the executive team, but had a solid career path for getting there. I can't remember the stat, but an extraordinarily high number of attendees opted not to take advantage so the women attending was still far and few between.


I'm not sure what the answer is. I see this when I travel. The people who have airline status are (me) and a bunch of men. Occasionally I'll see another woman out there on the road. When people find out how much I travel and that I own a business, you know what the first thing out of their mouths is? "Oh you can do it because you don't have kids."


It's total BS, but it's a cultural and societal thing. 

Latest blog post: The Three Things, Edition 18

profkrg 5pts

You hit on a key point here, which is that many women are completely or predominately responsible for children and their needs. This creates some unique challenges for women in the workplace. Some that I don't think men feel as much.

That being said, I don't think gender should matter one way or the other. The best person for the role should be employed, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. 

I am perhaps just as bothered by the idea that we "need more women" in executive roles. We need the best people in executive roles. Once we base all of our decisions on that, the workforce will be a much better place.

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rebelbrown 5pts

Great post Sam 

Having been one of the first women ever in tech companies - I have a very different perspective on women and business.  You see, I began my career with a glass ceiling, sexual harassment, swaggering dudes and worse.  I know what it feels like to be oppressed simply because I was the first woman to grace the sales force of some huge tech companies.  I experienced the shock when, at the age of 25, a client told me to sleep with him if I wanted the deal for the $10M mainframe. That wasn't the worst shock - the worst one was when my boss looked me in the eye and asked, "So what's the problem?" 

I can count of at least 10 times back then when I was sexually harassed  propositioned and worse. All of which would make me MILLIONS in law suits today.  Yes - times have changed. BIG TIME. 

Which is why I get so frustrated when I see all the comments about women being oppressed.  Come on, today's situations are NOTHING compared to the wild west of the past.

What I truly believe is that one reason there aren't more women in corporate and political leadership is because so many of us CHOOSE to take an alternative path.  We self select - whether it be to raise kids or start our own businesses.  We don't stay in corporations as long as men, we move from job to job, company to company, we leave the corporate world entirely....and yet we expect the same representation as men who will literally stay with a company for the long term and plod their way up the ladder.

I also see a trend in many comments that seems to me like women are asking for special treatment.  We want to have it all.  for example, I had someone tell me she wanted to leave  the workforce to have kids,but couldn't understand when she couldn't  come back to the same status after ten years off.  Come on - no one would do that for a man so why should we be special?

In my experience, the women who become senior executives often give up a lot to get ahead. Often that includes their femininity. They play like the boys and work just like them too. That's not a negative comment - it's truth.  

The thing is, women's brains are wired so differently from men's that corporate jobs often don't give us the reward we need to feel successful. We're wired with 8x the nurturing and communication centers of a man. Just as men are wired with 5-7x the aggression we have.  Its part of our brain function. 

What if the reason there aren't more women is simply  because we self select to find more enjoyable and fulfilling pursuits.  What if we don't plod up the ladder like men but rather, find out own ladders that deliver a different level of satisfaction?  

I don't buy the age old plot of men versus women and that stuffy old glass ceiling.  Not in today's world.  I lived in that world and it died a long long time ago.   In fact, I think we do ourselves and injustice when we continue with the same old arguments.  Especially in today's world when so many men in fact see us and treat us as equals.  

I do buy the idea that women simply have a different way to reach for fulfillment - and it doesn't have to live in the old structure of the corporate world. 

Respectfully.... and truly from my heart...


barrettrossie 5pts

"I'm just going to sit here and listen as @ginidietrich and the rest of my employees chime in." -- Charles Armant.

samfiorella moderator 5pts

 @ginidietrich I've noticed the same thing - fewer women traveling for business than men. Not sure that suggests there are more men in executive roles than women. You don't need to be an executive to have frequent flyer status - just a sales or project management job that requires a lot of travel.. Given that women are almost 1/2 the job force, it would make sense that there should be the same number of women flying for business than men. Yet, the majority are men.


Doesn't this just fuel the debate that women choose to take jobs that allow them to maintain primary responsibility  for the kids/household.  By design or naturally, men accept (or are given) more jobs that require frequent travel than women? 



ginidietrich 5pts

P.S. I just read a quote (and now I can't remember who said it), that essentially said if a woman wants equal rights with men, she hasn't set her sights high enough.

Latest blog post: The Three Things, Edition 18

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@profkrg Excellent comment. We can't deny nature and like it or not, women are nurturers. I'm sure it's why mother nature  -  or God or whoever you believe in -  chose females as the perfect gender to get pregnant. When combined with cultural and familial factors, women are - and will always be - more inclined (and, in my opinion just better) at being primary care givers. This will always skew the women-men ratio in corporate circles. 

If a woman chooses to pursue an executive role and commits the time, if her work is equal, her pay should also be equal - that's a different story. However, I believe we need to stop arguing for equal representation. Provide the opportunity and allow women to choose if they wish to go for it. But don't be upset if women aren't represented 50/50 - it may never be a physical reality  or something we should force. 

thanks for joining the conversation. 

JoeCardillo 5pts

 @rebelbrown Hi Rebel - re: hardwiring of nurturing /communication vs. aggression, can you send along links or direct us to study authors?


Research I've read suggests correlation between brain chemicals and behaviors, but given what we know about gender being fluid I have reservations about what you're suggesting. Basically, some research points to men with higher levels of estrogen exhibiting higher nurturing characteristics, so how do we know that corporate vs. home life is based on some essential female or maleness, and not the chemical makeup of individuals (which varies widely)?



ginidietrich 5pts

 @rebelbrown That happened to me, Rebel, just 10 years ago. A client cornered me in a crowded bar after a week of traveling together on business and professed his love to me. He was married and his wife had just had their third child. I told him he needed to go to his room and sleep off the booze and started to walk away. He grabbed my arm, pulled me close, and said, "Your entire agency will lose all of our business if you don't come with me." I pulled my arm away and went to my room and double locked the door. When I got back to the office, I told my supervisor and then the CEO. The response I got was, "I'm sorry this happened, but we need this business and we need you to continue traveling with him." I quit a few weeks later.

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@rebelbrown thanks for your perspective Rebel. 

I do believe that many women don't pursue executive roles because, as working-moms, they choose a work-life balance (not available in many executive roles). Conversely, I'm sure there are many times a women is over-looked for a deserving promotion because of the fear that "they'll have a baby" or being a working-mom will prevent them from dedicating the extra time at work required/expected.  (And it's not just men, I've heard women managers using that same argument to not promote or hire a woman). I'm not saying it's right or wrong, but as you suggest, it's a reality.

I'm not sure that the equality that's automatically expected between men and women in the corporate world (re: representation) is realistic if women don't give up their quest for work-life balance?  Is the desire to "have it all" setting false expectations?

On a side note, can you imagine what our world would be if men were primary caregivers? EEEK. (I'm only 1/2 joking).

ginidietrich 5pts

 @samfiorella A couple of years ago, Sheryl Sandberg gave a commencement speech where she talked about how women naturally let up on our careers when we're ready to get married and then when we're ready to have babies. Most of the time it's not something we think about, we just do it because it's ingrained into our DNA. There are some women (like me) who don't have that biological clock ticking and place their careers ahead of everything else. But they're not the majority. If that's true and not just based on opinion, it does stand to reason we choose to take jobs that allow us to balance both home and work.

rebelbrown 5pts

 @JoeCardillo   HI Joe -   There are two excellent books that provide links to a significant percentage of the research out there on Male vs Female Brains.   They're by Dr Louann Brizendine and are appropriately named The Female Brain and The Male Brain.


You'll learn that there are significant differences in the structure and focus of male vs female brains.  Male brains have significantly larger brain sections for aggression and reproduction, whereas women's brains have larger centers that control communication and nurturing.


You'll also learn that estrogen and progesterone are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to chemicals that manage and direct our brain.  SO many more  chemicals get involved.  And those chemicals vary based on our life phase.  What operates at 25 is different than what operates at 12 or 45.   Different life phases are preplanned in many ways by our chemical patterns.


They're great books and were eye openers to me about the true difference between the sexes....  I've worked with men all my life and the Male Brain gave me insights into the chemistry behind the behaviors....  I think you'll appreciate both of them.




rebelbrown 5pts

 @ginidietrich Hey Gini -It happened to me so much in my career - I just learned how to manage it better as I got a bit older.  Whats interesting to me is that I have great guy friends who tell me the same thing happens to them with women who come on to them...sometimes bosses, sometimes employees thinking they can "get ahead".   It's become a prevalent topic of conversation in the past few years (seems many of them come to me to get advice about how to handle these femme fatales!) .  I even have one male friend whose female boss was so unnerving he left the job rather than deal with the onslaught.    That's a fairly recent experience - don;t think we would have seen that 20 years ago.   Yes, sadly, it seems that women have the same bad habits and men  do when it comes to power:) 

AmyMccTobin 5pts

 @ginidietrich  @rebelbrown Yes, sadly we all face this crap. I worked in the very male dominated carpet industry; I was the ONLY female VP I ever met in my travels... the only one.  And it's a huge industry.  The reality is that sexism is still out there.  I was regularly flirted with although not propositioned like you two were.... but when I DID get promoted to VP at least 3 of my sales reps - the ones REPORTING to me, said they "knew" I'd slept with the President to get my job.  


I don't  think we need to make a choice between career and family - work hours can be so much more flexible. I work from 6 -8 in the morning often, drop my daughter off, work until 3 when I pick her up. THEN, I usually spend a couple of hours with her, make dinner, and back to work in the evening.  I cook not because I'm the woman, but because I enjoy it.  I think it's up to us: WE NEED TO CHANGE IT if that's what we want. 

rebelbrown 5pts

@samfiorella @rebelbrown


At the risk of being flogged...

If you think about the whole "having a baby" question from the corporate side.... You're going to invest money in this person who is promoted to an exec or managerial position, that person is going to be critical to your organization.   Would you hire a man who said he would only be available for an unknown period of time before he would take a break to go on a round the world trip for six months to year?  Probably not.   Just sayin....  it's not as simple as the baby  issue  -  it's about running a business and needing long term folks in management roles. 

As for the desire to have it all- I dont think that rational. We  all have to make choices because no one can have it all - unless you're a movie star or born wealthy:)   The whole concept of having it all started with an ad for womens perfume, or was it Virginia Slims... Anyway - men and women make choices.  It's part of the human experience.  So that whole having it all thing, IMO, is status quo programming that needs to change.  If women want to be in executive positions - they need to make the time and energy commitment to be there -just like men do.  We can't all be Nancy Polosi flying back and forth from work to home every week on the taxpayers dime.   On the flip side - men give up time with their families to be execs and take on leadership roles that demand their time and attention.  Yet we don't talk about what they give up to be leaders...

It's a complex issue.  IMO women have come a LONG way. Especially from where I first started working back in the dark ages:)   Yet women continue to be emotional and demand equality - which I think causes their message to fall on closed ears - because of the emotional aspect.  We need to shift the arguments to logic and facts -which is how corporations and men think, well mostly.  By focusing on having equal skills, presenting logical arguments and stepping up to act and think as executive leaders - we can have a much stronger impact than with the continued emotional charged demands.  

Just my two cents...



  1. [...] A couple of weeks ago, Sam Fiorella wrote an interesting blog post called, “Under-Representation of Women in Corporate and Political Offices.” [...]