Gene A. Budig/Alan Heaps | Gender bias continues to be serious issue in U.S.

Gene A. Budig/Alan Heaps | Gender bias continues to be serious issue in U.S.

As we look back on 2018, the midterm elections will certainly be regarded as one of the year's major events. A particularly noteworthy aspect was the record number of women voted into the 116th Congress.

To put this into context, here is a thumbnail sketch of past, present and future data on women in the House.

The first woman was elected to the House in 1917. In 1951, women held a mere 2 percent of the seats. By 1981, it had expanded to 5 percent. By 2011, it was up to 18 percent. We are currently at 20 percent, and in 2019, it will be at an all-time high of 23 percent.

While these increases should be celebrated, it is important not to conflate progress with success. For many, the numbers still seem woefully low, particularly because we know that there is no shortage of qualified females.

More than half the total population are women. They make up 47 percent of the workforce, and they annually earn more bachelor's degrees (a pattern that dates back almost 40 years) and doctoral degrees (a pattern that dates back nine years).

The underrepresentation of women in the House is not an isolated phenomenon. It closely mirrors their representation in other corridors of power.

In S&P 500 companies, women make up only 27 percent of the senior level managers, 21 percent of the board seats, 11 percent of the top earners and 5 percent of CEOs.

In the non-profit world, women make up only 30 percent of college presidents, 23 percent of mayors in the largest 100 cities, 12 percent of governors and 12 percent of CEOs in non-governmental agencies.

And this phenomenon is not limited to the United States. Women hold only 6 percent of heads of state positions and 22 percent of senior corporate positions in G7 (largest advanced economies) countries.

So what accounts for this problem?

As with all aspects of individual and collective human behavior, the answers are complicated and much debated. Various explanations have been posited, including, but not limited to, lower expectations, leadership style, family demands, motherhood and accumulation of social capital.

But there is another explanation that seems increasingly to be beyond debate: discrimination against women.

Study after study report that many believe that gender discrimination is a major factor in why so few women are in positions of power. One 2018 poll shows that half of the adults interviewed believe this to be the case.

And there is increasing evidence this is not just a matter of perception but a reflection of reality.

For example, in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review on corporate promotions, researchers concluded that "... the difference in promotion rates between men and women in this company was due not to their behavior but to how they were treated ... gender inequality is due to bias ..."

It is in our best interest to have great leaders in all parts of society, and this can only be accomplished by pulling from the largest possible pool of candidates.

Once we accept that, both individually and collectively, we hold biases against half the population, equality for women becomes a matter of critical import for all of us.

In these difficult, complex and divisive times, it is not only a matter of justice, it is also a matter of survival.

Gene Budig is past president/chancellor of three major state universities and of baseball's American League. Alan Heaps is a national researcher and former vice president of the College Board in New York City.

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