Women in leadership: progress and obstacles


Meredith Hemler

21 May 2015

Over the past 50 years, women’s labor force participation has increased by 53%, according to the United States Department of Labor. In that time, important legislation, such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 were passed, advancing women’s equality in the workplace. With each of these milestones, and others noted on this infographic, women continue to have more opportunities to pursue careers they find meaningful and fulfilling.

Despite these advances, challenges still exist as women pursue leadership roles. What can be done to close the gap and increase the number of female leaders in the U.S.? How do women successfully advance in their careers, and where is more support needed? These questions and others were raised during a recent thought leader dinner, hosted by AstraZeneca in partnership with the National Journal, and moderated by Emily Lenzner, Vice President of Global Communications, Atlantic Media.

The event brought together national thought leaders from Fortune 500 companies and non-profit organizations, former members of government, entrepreneurs, and members of the media in Washington, D.C. to discuss perspectives on advancing women in leadership. Bahija Jallal, Executive Vice President, AstraZeneca and head of MedImmune, hosted the event and led a lively conversation among the 20 female leaders in attendance.

The discussion encompassed a variety of topics, including the importance of women seeing other women in leadership roles so they could more easily envision themselves reaching higher positions. The topic of work-life balance naturally arose, and participants noted the conversation should be reframed to focus on work-life integration and the need to embrace flexibility. According to a Pew Research Center survey on women and leadership, children are not the leading reason women opt out of more significant roles. Only about one in five say women’s family responsibilities are a major reason there aren’t more females in top leadership positions.

As one participant noted, men think about how they can fill professional roles even if they do not meet all of the qualifications. Conversely, women are more likely to doubt their skills if they do not meet all the requirements. In 2014, Forbes reported that “men are confident about their ability at 60%, but women don’t feel confident until they’ve checked off each item on the list.”

Leaders discussed strategies and opportunities for gaining confidence in the workplace. One area of focus was the idea of moving outside your comfort zone. Women should become more comfortable with taking risks and accepting assignments that may not be “the path well traveled”, but demonstrate leadership skills. The ability to ask for feedback, and the willingness to fail after taking a chance were cited as tools for women to use in the workplace. Participants also pressed the importance of women collaborating and networking with each other to create a support system.

The evening concluded with points about how thought diversity will take companies further, and the ways in which women can begin to open up those thought channels by accepting opportunities and remaining resilient despite setbacks that may occur.

As one attendee noted, quoting what United States House Representative Member Geraldine Ferraro said describing her friend and fellow politician Congresswoman Bella Abzug upon her passing: let women not knock politely on the door, but take it off its hinges.

The dinner was part of a series of events coordinated by National Journal LIVE, a premier events business that convenes top leaders in the Washington, D.C. area to discuss possible solutions to the country’s biggest challenges.