The real reasons the United States is over 200 years from gender equality—and how to change that now

According to the World Economic Forum, the US is 208 years away from gender equality.  They came to this conclusion upon measuring key factors like economic participation, political empowerment, health and survival, and educational attainment.  For perspective, the US ranks #53 in the world on gender equality falling behind  countries like Rwanda, Cuba, and Bulgaria.

The concerning part is that the ranking is getting worse.  Decades ago, the US was a top 20 global leader in gender equality and just recently ranked #38.

Why the US falling behind

The US is not keeping up with global leaders like Iceland, Norway, and New Zealand because gender bias still keeps women out of politics and the business world, parental leave is not widely available, and there are few government mandates to drive gender equality.

Gender bias holds women back.  There are a number of biases that uniquely impact women in the political and business arenas.  The motherhood penalty affects all women, not just mothers.  It assumes that women at the childbearing age are primary caregivers and even if they do not yet have children, they ought to or will inevitably have them, therefore, not being as committed to their work.

I myself remember a CEO of a then Fortune 500 company telling me that “it would be hard for me in the childbearing years.”  I was then in my mid-20’s and had no idea what he was talking about.  He was right though.  This is an example of conscious bias.  More often, bias is unconscious and shapes decisions without overt declaration that it is because of someone’s gender.  More subtle forms sound like, “she just had a baby, let’s not overwhelm her with a promotion or travel,” or “what if she has another baby, will she stay here?”  The challenge is not that women are mothers; the challenge is that men are fathers too.  We will not solve gender equality until all parents are treated equal.

Other biases affecting women are the potential vs. performance bias that assumes men have more potential than women merely due to their gender identification.  This looks like “he is a go getter, I am sure he will figure it out,” or “she has not done that before, let’s give her a trial to be sure she is ready.”  Our brains just have not seen that many women lead.  It is harder to believe it is possible.  I, myself, default to men as decision makers because that is what my brain has seen more often.  I rarely, even now in women’s leadership work, work directly with women decision makers.  This reinforces the bias.

Inclusive parental leave policies are a best practice amongst global leaders. While a one size fits all approach does not work, and certainly organization size is a key factor, companies that retain and engage women do these things to be inclusive of parenthood:

  • They offer paid maternity leave (only 40% of US companies do this in 2020)
  • They do not offer just paid leave to women, but to men as fathers too and let families decide how to share the leave
  • They encourage men to take their parental leave
  • They do not just offer paid leave to salaried workers, but to all workers
  • They offer flex time during the first year of childcare to accommodate for sickness and adjustments

Because women are still the majority of primary caregivers at 75% and men make up less than 20% of stay at home parents, we have a long road ahead.  In my research, I found in the Scandinavian countries that women and men equally take time during the first years of child care and a four-day work week is common where each parent has one week day with the child and the child only spends three days a week with others.  This best practice is attributed to lower sickness, better productivity for parents, and longer-term retention of high performing employees that just happen to have families.

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There is a role for government to lead gender equality.  California has passed some legislation recently to encourage more board representation by women and more fair performance management practices.  This is not being widely adopted yet by the majority of the country.  On one hand it is un-American to push quotas on companies, yet without these requirements, companies are not doing enough to advance equality.  Perhaps this will get their attention.  Even with a record year for women in politics in 2018, US Congress is only made up of just 25% women, and is far from electing a woman president.  We need more women leaders to influence change.  And, we need our male allies to support this issue publically.

gender equality

Gender Equality Can’t Wait

What can you do?

Some strategies to edge away bias, set reasonable parental leave policies, and influence government decisions.

  • Assess your gender bias and get your organization to step up and lead from where you are at as an ally. Consider taking the Harvard Implicit Bias assessment and following the #flipittotestit on Twitter as a team and getting together and discussing your insights.
  • Advocate for more inclusive parental leave policies. Share best practices from global companies and countries leading the way.  Ask what keeping a high potential expecting parent would be worth?  Chances are it is less than the investment of the leave time.
  • Get other people to vote.  Do your research on candidates that support gender equality.  Women in politics face bias and many more obstacles, how are you supporting the candidates that care?

We are all better with gender equality.  Men and women are better.  All humans are better when are free to be who we really are and treated fairly across genders.

Like this content?  Then, you will love my new book Lead Like an Ally.  Click on the link to order your copy, watch complimentary videos, and begin your ally journey.  A great place to start is by taking my free online assessment and printing my free inclusive leader checklist to kick start efforts at your organization.

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