03/25/2014 03:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2014

We're Minding the Gap, But How Do We Close It?

The lack of female leadership in the United States is a painfully familiar topic for us at the Women Donors Network. In my post Mind the Leadership Gap, I wanted to celebrate the tremendous progress women have made during the last century, but in reality I had to lament the fact that this progress seems to have largely lost momentum. We don't see the numbers of women in leadership positions rising in proportion to the numbers of women earning degrees -- and it's deeply troubling.

The Center for American Progress released an excellent report that captured the frustration that we have been feeling, and by stating that that women's "share of voice," or the number of women in positions of influence, doesn't seem to be moving past 15 percent. The troubling conclusion that comes from this data is that despite the incredible achievements of women across the United States, the barriers they face are so significant as to deter them from pursuing power in civic life or in business, and even leaving the workforce entirely.

Women face a unique combination of cultural and structural barriers that impede their success and growth into positions of power, either in business or in government. Whether or not we choose to accept it, women with families face competing responsibilities that most men simply don't face, which often forces them out of the workplace. When women find their professional progress stalling, they often opt to dedicate more time to their other responsibilities. The Center for American Progress notes that 66 percent of high-achieving women at some point choose to work part-time. Such a trend has not been noted among their male counterparts. Under these circumstances, we're losing the influence and insight of these smart and successful women.

This unsettling trend may lead to another barrier for women and other underrepresented groups: lack of role models and mentors. The fact is that leadership in both the private and public sector is heavily male, and heavily white. Women and people of color have very few examples to follow, and very few resources to tap into. The lack of sufficient numbers of public figures from underrepresented groups just fortifies the barriers to leadership.

As a country built on the idea of a representative democracy, we should be infuriated by the way this has shaken out in politics. The demographic breakdown of Congress bears little (if any) resemblance to the demographics of the American people. It's not just gender diversity that we lack, but racial and class diversity as well. White males are only 32 percent of the population, but somehow hold almost 80 percent of the seats in Congress. Millionaires are just 4 percent of the American population, but represent more than half of Congress. This disconnect is too great to be ignored.

We've pointed out time and time again that women in politics get things done. If we improve gender, race and class diversity, it stands to reason that Congress will become exponentially better at addressing the needs of all Americans.

At WDN, we believe that in order to prosper, the United States needs a reflective democracy -- one that truly matches the electorate. We are not under the illusion that this will be easy, so we must collaborate and forge partnerships to break the structural barriers that have historically prevented women and people of color from coming into political power. We hope that by working both on the state and local levels, as well as on a systemic and nationwide level, we can spark the kinds of conversations that will catalyze this necessary shift in power. Because of our deep commitment to democracy, we strive to create a thriving society that everyone can enjoy.