The quality of leadership in the two most powerful nations in the world matters. Not only do China and the USA govern more than 1.6 billion of the world’s 7 billion citizens, but their economic power influences global growth and, increasingly, human development in many of the world’s nations.
And with a new set of ambitious Sustainable Development Goals to achieve by 2030, including ending poverty, preventable child deaths and malnutrition, the world will need its very best talent at the helm of governments, businesses, universities and civil society.
In this context, the results of the 2016 Motherhood+Public Power Index can only be described as deeply disturbing. At this point in time, just 22 of the 320 most powerful positions in both China and the USA are held by leaders who are also mothers. That’s a rate of 7%.
Mothers do slightly better in the USA, holding 16 of the top 160 jobs (10%), compared to mothers in China, who hold just 6 of the 160 most powerful positions (3.75%). This is in stark contrast to the proportion of leaders who are also fathers – more than 90% in China and more than 80% in America.
Of the four sectors measured by the Motherhood+Public Power Index, universities and governments perform best in promoting leaders who are also mothers into the top jobs. This is due to the larger number of leading USA universities led by women who are also mothers, and to the small but growing representation of women in USA governments.
In contrast, the business and philanthropic sectors record the lowest representation of mothers. There are only four mothers among the top 80 CEOs in China and the USA, and only three mothers among the top 80 Chinese and American philanthropists.
The conclusion could not be clearer. Mothers are dramatically underrepresented in the halls of power in China and the USA, while fathers are dramatically overrepresented. If China and the USA had the same proportion of mothers leading their most powerful institutions as they do in the population (40%), we would expect to see 58 more women who were also mothers in the top 160 jobs in China and another 48 mothers in the equivalent roles in the USA.
What can be done to accelerate the proportion of women who are also mothers into four out of every 10 leadership positions? First, we need mothers in China and the USA to celebrate and support the mothers already in powerful positions.
Second, we all need to push for the changes that would make it easier for more mothers to pursue their professional careers to the levels of highest influence. Primarily this will involve a profound transformation in work norms so that workplaces deliver on the “deep and temporal flexibility” championed so powerfully by Anne-Marie Slaughter, Claudia Goldin and Joan Williams.
Third, we need to build a truly global movement to put more mothers into seats of power. It’s not enough if the USA and China increase the proportion of mothers in the top power positions. We need countries like India, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Russia, Japan, Mexico, the Philippines, Viet Nam, Ethiopia, and Egypt taking on motherhood and public power – measuring it, publicly reporting on it, and ultimately putting in place the policies and programs that will achieve a critical mass of mothers in positions of public influence everywhere.
The world can no longer afford to pay the high price it has been paying for the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions. We need leaders who reflect the diversity of skills, experiences and values in the populations they lead to successfully tackle the steep challenges now facing the planet.