IN 2015 the promise of gender equality seems closer than ever. A new report by the Pew Research Centre shows that the majority of Americans think women are just as capable of being good political and business leaders as men. They are perceived as indistinguishable from their male peers when it comes to leadership qualities such as intelligence and capacity for innovation. On other qualities—honesty, fairness, compassion and willingness to compromise—many Americans actually judge women as superior.
It’s tempting to read the report as a sign of progress. After all, the 114th Congress includes a record number of women (104) serving in the House and Senate. On the corporate front, 26 women now lead as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies; that’s up from zero in 1995. But, in fact, the 104 congresswomen only make up 19% of Congress and the female CEOs are only 5% of all Fortune 500 CEOs.
In short, the numbers are creeping along, but they’re still staggeringly low. The success of a Hillary Clinton or a Mary Barra is encouraging—but these women are exceptions to the rule. What is holding women back from leadership positions in 21st-century America? According to Pew, the problem is that women still have to do more than men to prove themselves. This finding suggests a troubling assumption—that we still don’t expect women to be able to do what men can do. We allow that it’s possible, but our baseline expectations are that men are more capable. This puts women in the position of having to go above and beyond the standards to which men are held in order to demonstrate their competence.