2020 saw the highest number of women of color elected to congress in U.S. history, as well as the election of Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman (and woman of color) to hold the position. These advances, however, have not been matched by balanced representation more generally in leadership positions outside of politics. Women of color remain significantly underrepresented in workplace leadership (4% at executive level) and along the promotion pipeline in comparison to white women (20% at executive level), as well as to black and white men (13% and 62%, respectively).

So while we may celebrate the wins, questions remain: Are these successes just drops in the ocean? How much actual advancement has been made? And how much more work needs to be done to achieve the combination of race and gender equity in leadership? Ample research over the last decade highlights where progress has been made and where there are continued gaps. Here are four takeaways from the research to date, as well as suggestions for areas where additional research and action might offer fresh ways forward.

First, more attention could be paid to descriptive representation. This refers to the degree by which the members of a population are represented in leadership by individuals with similar background and experiences. It matters not just for the sake of fairness but also to ensure that the challenges of marginalized populations are addressed.

Second, while more data and research have helped us better understand the barriers of WOC in leadership, we can also see that little seems to have changed. Challenges like microaggressions, racism, tokenism, “the broken rung,” “the glass cliff,” childcare needs, lack of sponsorship/mentorship, and inadequate career opportunities persist. Studies show that social capital, cash ceilings and burnout can also play a vital role.

Third, consider the potential for intervention tools to promote leadership development. While there has been a lot of research on the challenges WOC face on the path to leadership, as noted above, the same attention does not appear to have been given to tools that can be used to remove these barriers.

And fourth, “intersectionality” could play an important role in the pursuit of progress. Experiences vary such that there is a difference between the challenges of women in leadership and women of color in leadership. For instance, in politics, women of color have been constrained to run in majority-minority districts, while non-Hispanic white women do not experience the same constraint.

Read the full article about female leadership in the workplace by Zara Fatima Abdurahaman at RAND Corporation.