It’s March and for 31 days, everyone is celebrating women. Big brands have rolled out their annual ode to women with varying degrees of success (we’re looking at you Burger King). As usual, most of these ads run during the month and then fade away. Here we are in the 21st century, and the role of women, our place in society, the challenges we face, are relegated to a single month. I believe women deserve so much more. In order to make that happen, we need to talk about leadership and gender.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Women are 51% of the US population, but we aren’t half of the leadership numbers, whether you’re talking big business, higher education, or politics. Why?

A 2018 study found that girls’ self-confidence falls 30% between the ages of 8-14; at age 14, when girl’s self-confidence hits the lowest point, boys’ confidence is 27% higher. Before you dismiss this as typical teenage angst, it’s important to remember that self confidence plays a critical role as young people enter their teens. Confidence at this age gives them a stronger voice and better grades, which means more career choices and the potential for higher earnings.

Before the pandemic, women made up nearly half of the total workforce. But as we retreated to our homes, more women left the workforce than men. One report estimates nearly 3 million women have quit, been laid off, or were furloughed. As a result, female workforce numbers now reflect those of 1988. The reasons for this exodus vary but economists agree the recession of 2020 can rightly be called a “shecession.”

In 2021, about 8% of all Fortune 500 companies have a female CEO, and of these, only three are women of color. That’s not surprising when you consider women hold about 20% of corporate board seats and a paltry 5% were the board chair. The absence of women in leadership roles isn’t just a matter of diversity. Working women, like men, look to their leaders as role models. Men have multiple paths to success, because they can see a full spectrum of paths forged by the men who came before. Women do not.

While many women do regain their confidence as they mature and enter the workforce, it’s clear they face challenges in the corporate world male counterparts do not. That may be one reason capable women are turning to small business as a means of regaining their agency. Women own 4 in every 10 small businesses and that number is growing at a rate 2.5 times higher than male-owned small businesses.

Lead, Follow, or Get Out of Her Way

Why does this matter? Does gender matter in terms of leadership? The short answer is yes. Studies have shown female leaders have a different style of leadership than men. Women are more empathetic and self-aware. They are more collaborative and more likely to ensure every member of a team is heard and contributes. Before you dismiss these as soft skills, consider this: A 2018 study by Nordea found a correlation between female leaders and higher returns. A Goldman Sachs study compared the performance of large-cap US equity funds managed by women and those managed by men. The female-led funds did better than those managed by men. In these studies, the men and women had the same level of knowledge and hard leadership skills. But the bottom line benefited from female leadership.

Effective leadership may not be solely a matter of gender, but it’s clear women have an edge, if not the actual title. According to academic studies, business reports, and the US Bureau of Labor, women score highly on the key traits for leaders. They are perceived as being more honest and ethical. Women are more likely to inspire, using it as a tool to align groups instead of the carrot-and-stick approach favored by men. As a result, their companies or teams have a higher level of productivity, performance, and team engagement. When companies are led by women, there is often a greater emphasis on diversity, which may explain why the company has a female leader. Small businesses owned by women see two times the return for every dollar invested. If nothing else, women in leadership roles are good for the economy even when the economy isn’t good for women.

Mind the Gap

The phrase “mind the gap” reminds passengers to watch their step between the platform and the Tube in Britain. To me, it’s a reminder to pay attention to the difference between dreams and reality. Fifty years ago, full-time, working women earned a median income of $0.56 for every dollar men earned. In 2021, the gender wage gap has shortened, with women earning $0.82 for every dollar men earned. We’ve become so conscious of this disparity there’s even a day in the calendar marking how many extra days women must work to match what men earn. In 2021, Equal Pay Day is March 24, the earliest it has ever been. That’s progress.

One reason the wage gap is closing is because more women are in high managerial jobs and earning higher wages according to Pew Research. That’s important because the widest gaps in wages for men and women are for high managerial jobs. The gap is much narrower for low paying jobs. As more women enter high-level managerial jobs, they earn more and the gap narrows. Education is making progress possible.

More women are earning a four-year college degree than men. In 1980, only 16% of women in the workforce had a college degree compared to 20% of men. Forty years later, 41.7% of women have their undergraduate degree, while 36.2% of men graduate from college. Professional degree programs in medicine, law and business have more women enrolling and graduating. In MBA programs, women make up 39% of the graduates. As these women begin their careers, there’s reason to believe the wage gap will continue to narrow.

Looking Forward

Progress doesn’t happen overnight. Ingrained beliefs don’t suddenly vanish. But I wish it could happen that way. Benchmarks, such as the gender wage gap, the number of female CEOs, and a female vice president of the US, mark our progress. They help to answer the question we hear too often. Do we really need a month celebrating the history of women?

Women are known for their ability to communicate and negotiate. We nurture, guide, and hold our families together. But the pandemic has reminded us that we can’t do it all. When push comes to shove, when women are forced to choose, they make the hard choices.

In 2021, we must face the consequences of losing nearly 3 million women from the workforce. That loss directly impacts every single one of us. I wonder what would have happened to these women if there were more women in leadership roles. Would there have been better childcare policies? Would there have been a more unified response to COVID-19?

We’ll never know. The best we can do is to take a hard look at what we’re doing to make it easier for women to see a path to leadership.

I’d love to hear what you’re doing. Please reach out to me and share your ideas. Together, I believe we can make a difference!