I am often asked why some women have such harsh things to say about women seeking high political posts, and the few women in those posts. The more interesting question may be why so many people -- women and men -- support having a female leader.

After all, we've been taught to distrust and dislike smart, capable, women who seek leadership. Those of us born in the United States grew up in a country that has never had a female president. We are at the peak of female representation in the United States Congress, and 80% of our congressional representatives are male. For every woman in Congress, there are four men. We have the most women on the Supreme Court of any time in our history, and only three justices are female. Six are male, so the male justices outnumber the female justices by a factor of two-to-one. Women make up only 25% of the presidents of the top 100 universities. Male university presidents outnumber female university presidents by a factor of four-to-one. Among the Fortune 500, we have only four women CEOs. That means male CEOs among the Fortune 500 outnumber female CEOs by a factor of 124-to-one.

Watch all but a handful of television shows, and you will see women in subservient roles. The leads are portrayed by men. The people depicted as having ideas and those executing the ideas, are men. The people in power, the people in government, the lawyers, judges, doctors, etc., are virtually always depicted as men. The shows that have strong female leads stand out, because there are so few of them.

Watch commercials. You're taught that women stay in the home, clean, cook, and take care of children. We are not depicted as running companies, let alone our government. We are not shown as leaders.

There are a few movies that feature headstrong female characters in leading roles -- "Suffragette", "Divergent", "Real Women Have Curves", "Bridget Jones's Diary", "The Hunger Games", "The Help", "Pocahontas", "Clueless", "Legally Blonde", "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "The Color Purple", "Pretty in Pink", "Out Of Africa", "Waiting to Exhale", "Aliens", "The Wizard of Oz", "The Wiz", and "Erin Brockovich" come to mind. I don't think it's a coincidence that each of them was a blockbuster. People want to see strong, smart, capable, and confident women on the big screen.

Sadly, these few films (and the few more with strong female leads) stick out because Hollywood has done such a terrible job of including strong female characters on the big screen. Women on film are barely ever portrayed as even speaking characters. According to a recent report from the University of Southern California’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative, in the 700 biggest box office smashes between 2007 and 2014, women played under a third of the speaking characters.

Quoting from the Geena Davis Institute's webpage,1 the data across the film industry is jaw dropping, especially as to what children are being shown:

  • Males outnumber females 3 to 1 in family films[, a figure that has remained stagnant since] 1946[.]
  • Females are also underrepresented behind the camera. Across 1,565 content creators, only 7% of directors, 13% of writers, and 20% of producers are female. This translates to [nearly five] males working behind-the-scenes to ever[y] female.
  • From 2006 to 2009, not one female character was depicted in G-rated family films in the field of medical science, as a business leader, in law, or politics. In these films, 80.5% of all working characters are male and 19.5% are female, [in] contrast to real world statistics, where women comprise 50% of the workforce.

According to Danielle Paquette's piece in The Washington Post entitled, "Not even a third of speaking roles in popular movies go to women:"

"The gender ratio doesn’t appear to be improving[.] Last year, 21 of the 100 top-grossing fiction films featured a female protagonist or co-protagonist, a seven-percent drop from 2013. The plots of the most recent Oscar nominees for Best Picture, meanwhile, all centered on guys."

We are taught from the time we are born that women should not be aggressive. That is a male trait. We should not speak up. We should not dominate any discussion. We should not mention our achievements, let alone speak highly of anything we do. If a woman candidate for President called herself "great," "fantastic," or anything of the sort, she'd never make it through a primary, let alone win it.

Think that's a stretch? A Harvard study found that when participants saw female politicians as seeking power, "they also saw them as ... being unsupportive and uncaring[,] while [the same] was not true [of] their perceptions of power-seeking male politicians.” On the contrary, both sexes viewed men seeking power as strong and competent, whereas both responded to women seeking power with “moral outrage” (emphasis supplied).

As noted by Herminia Ibarra, Robin J. Ely, and Deborah M. Kolb in their Harvard Business Review piece, "Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers:"

"Research has amply demonstrated that accomplished, high potential women who are evaluated as competent managers often fail the likability test, whereas competence and likability tend to go hand in hand for similarly accomplished men."

In short, we see leaders as men, not women, and many dislike and distrust women who rise.

So I would be interested to know why those of you who admire women leaders, do so.

My answer is because I was raised by a mother who owned her own business and raised eight kids, who showed me that women can do anything they want. She had me work in her store, see the award winning pet food packaging designs she conceived, and engaged me in conversations about her latest negotiations and business deals. She showed me that I could be a business owner, too. She also taught me critically important business tools that I use to this day: how to negotiate, compromise, reach consensus, and move forward.

I was raised by a father who viewed his wife as an equal. Indeed, I suspect one of the things that so attracted my dad to my mom is her self confidence, which mirrored his own.

My dad showed me that he saw me as an equal as well. He loved being a doctor. He viewed it as the best job in the world, and he brought my siblings and me -- my sister and brothers -- into his office to show us what he did, in the hope we would want to become doctors, too. Like my mother, he showed us we could do anything we wanted. We could become doctors -- the best job in the world.

The birthday card pictured above came from my parents. Note the language on it, "The best part of being your parent has been watching you grow into this wonderful, independent woman ...."

One other major influence was the one television show I saw growing up that reinforced my parents' outlook on gender equality, "Star Trek: Voyager." Vice Admiral Kathryn Janeway was depicted on it as the smart, highly capable, and compassionate commander of the starship's top notch crew.

Rather than distrusting and disliking women leaders, I was taught to view them as equals, and to admire and respect them.

If you do, too, what led you to do so?


Sheryl Axelrod is the founder of The Axelrod Firm, PC. She provides strategic, results-driven advice and representation to for-profit and non-profit businesses in their general liability, employment, commercial, and appellate litigation matters. Her clients include The Salvation Army, GlaxoSmithKline, and the City of Philadelphia.


1 The Geena Davis Institute draws from research conducted by Stacy Smith, Ph.D. at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.