To commemorate Women’s History Month, Good Jobs First dove into the make-up of economic development leadership. Looking at the data from 52 economic development agencies from all 50 states and DC (Wisconsin has 2 agencies, one private and one public), we found that 34 are headed by men and only 18 by women.
Despite women making up 50.8% of the US population, only 34.6% of these economic development agencies are headed by women. Research shows women earn 57% of undergraduate degrees and 59% of all master’s degrees but are still systematically underrepresented in leadership roles, especially political ones. In the U.S. House of Representatives, women occupy 27% of the seats and only 24% in the Senate. Women make up 30.40% of appointed positions in state legislatures. Although this is an increase in representation from other years, this lack of diversity is unacceptable in the 21st century.
Beyond the fact that women have inherent worth and deserve to be treated equally, it has been shown that women in positions of power bring different skill sets to the table. In her book, Women and American Politics, Sue Thomas shows that women in leadership positions concentrate more on issues concerning women, children, and families than their male counterparts. It has also been shown that women tend to focus on policy that improves quality of life, especially for racial and ethnic minorities.
New research shows that females in political leadership are more likely to conceptualize public policy problems more broadly. This can be seen by women looking for the root of the problem through cooperation with others or inclusion of different perspectives rather than just solving symptoms of it. The National Democratic Institute has also found that women, more often than men: work across party lines; prioritize health, education, and other key development indicators; and are highly responsive to constituents’ concerns.
In mainstream economic development especially, these skills and perspectives are in short supply. Most development agencies focus on recruiting big companies with big subsidies. Having leaders from diverse schools of thought and backgrounds thinking about the future effects on schools, workers, and small businesses could change the conversation on a new subsidy program or a deal. Having more women in leadership roles could potentially reshape the way we approach tax incentive programs – and better balance corporate interests with public interests.
The alternatives to our current system are endless. More women in charge could lead to an increase in community benefits, such as affordable day-care, well-funded public schools, and jobs that offer predictable schedules and a living wage. Women’s propensity to focus on the family and root of societal ails could lead to more holistic and effective development.
Increasing diversity requires direct action. According to the World Economic Forum in 2016, only 59% of the gender gap in economic opportunities has been closed across the globe. At the current rate of change, it will take another 170 years to close it completely. Getting more women and people of color into positions of leadership will require putting pressure on elected officials who appoint them. Women are underrepresented in positions of power, but their perspectives could change how we go about economic development.