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State of the Region: Minding the Gap in Women’s Leadership

There are more of them. They're better educated. And surveys repeatedly suggest Americans believe strongly in their attributes as leaders. So why do female workers lag behind their male counterparts in the opportunity to rise to top leadership positions?

That question was explored in detail in this year's State of the Region Report, produced by ODU's Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy, and unveiled in at an Oct. 1 luncheon in downtown Norfolk.

In the chapter "Mind the Gap: Women's Leadership in Hampton Roads," report authors showed that in this region, women achieve bachelor's degrees or higher at a greater rate than men, particularly in minority communities. While gains have been made in recent decades in closing the difference between women's and men's earnings, a persistent gap remains. Even if one accounts for occupational, environmental and other factors, women earn 92%, on average, of their male counterparts.

"The disparity in earnings also reflects the women's leadership gap," Barbara Blake, chief administrative officer of the Dragas Center, said in the Oct. 1 presentation. "In nearly all lines of work, the proportion of women at the highest levels of leadership is significantly lower than the proportion of women in mid- and lower-level positions. The relative absence of women has ripple effects on the talent pipeline, as women mentors are in relatively short supply."

In visible markers of executive leadership, women also trail their male counterparts locally. The boards of directors of the Hampton Roads and Virginia Peninsula Chambers of Commerce are comprised of only 24.3 percent and 22.9 women. Just 30 percent of the 2019 Inside Business Power List is female.

The State of the Region chapter investigated the extent of the women's leadership gap in Hampton Roads, its underlying causes and what can be done to narrow it. It examined the progress of women in the workplace, politics, higher education and Hampton Roads' three Fortune 500 companies.

The report noted a highly visible marker of progress in 2018, when three women were elected to Virginia's delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives, including Elaine Luria in Virginia's 2nd District, which covers part of Hampton Roads.

Surveys conducted nationally by the Pew Research Center - and interviews with local women leaders - suggested many of the same reasons for the gap in leadership and compensation: women need to prove themselves more than men, aren't encouraged to be leaders from an early age and family responsibilities make it harder for them to move up.

The State of the Region chapter quoted a recent Harvard Business School study that found countries and industries that view gender diversity as important realize the benefits of the advancement of women in society.

"To close the gap, we must first recognize that it exists. Only then can we take action - action that will improve the perception that Hampton Roads is a place where everyone can do business," Blake said.

The 2019 State of the Region Report, as well as previous years' reports, are available on the Dragas Center website.

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