Resume: “If mothers and fathers stick to traditional divisions of labour within the home, and if girls are directed into nurturing roles while boys are nudged into decision-making positions, then it’s unsurprising that beliefs about women’s leadership potential will remain frozen,” writes Christine Ro in an overview article on women leaders and biases in BBC Worklife.
“Only 38% of people in Japan were comfortable with the idea of a female head of government or a female CEO of a major company. In both Nigeria and Kenya, the scores (out of 100) were 62 for government and 56 for politics. The average G7 score for government and politics was higher, holding fairly steady over the last three years at 78. But this is still far from a score of 100 – which would indicate that women and men are seen as equally suitable for leadership positions.”
“Additionally, only 41% of people in Germany said they felt very comfortable with a woman being the head of government, in spite of Angela Merkel’s long-time chancellorship. “It’s just a myth that one female leader changes society,” says Michelle Harrison, who leads the public division of Kantar, the market research company that runs the Reykjavík Index surveys. And it’s unrealistic to expect a single leader (woman or otherwise) to create sweeping change around gender roles.”
The Reykjavík Index assesses attitudes toward female leadership in the G7 countries – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US – as well as India, Kenya and Nigeria. Its most recent survey of more than 20,000 adults led to some surprising and disheartening results.
Another striking finding was that around the world, young men were especially unlikely to endorse women leaders. This is surprising given that younger generations are often considered more progressive than older ones.
But in general, it’s common for beliefs about leadership to default to stereotypes about masculine behaviour, leading to unconscious gender bias. This can be present even in people who consider themselves progressive, including younger people.
“You can have Covid and you can have Me Too, and you don’t see big shifts at all”
Referring to the three years of Kantar’s survey research on attitudes toward women’s leadership, Michelle Harrison, lead of the public division of Kantar, the market research company that runs the Reykjavík Index surveys, comments: “The consistency of the data is a standout feature, that you can have Covid and that you can have Me Too, and you don’t see big shifts at all.”
Alice Eagly, a psychologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois: “The stereotype is that women aren’t agentic” – or decisive and authoritative – “and their voices aren’t as loud and they’re kind of small.” Because those are the types of traits traditionally associated with men and with leaders, notions of leadership have become bound up with perceptions of masculinity.
Over time, some beliefs have shifted. According to Eagly’s and colleagues’ analysis of seven decades of opinion polls on gender stereotypes, from 1946 to 2018, the US public considers women more competent than it did before. But beliefs about women’s agency (the ability to achieve goals and reach mastery) haven’t budged. As more women have entered the workforce, “female ghettos” have emerged within traditionally male fields, such as education ministries within government or human relations within management. To reach the top of the top, more cultural change is needed.
Change the image of the leadership roles
“One of the solutions to gender equality is to change not the image of women or men, but to change the image of the leadership roles,” says Eagly. She points to Ardern’s focus on New Zealanders’ welfare during the pandemic, and Merkel’s calm authority. These aren’t shouting strongmen hyper-focused on the economy and resistant to cooperation, which represents one stereotyped view of power.
Akshi Chawla, an independent researcher in Delhi and founder of the #WomenLead newsletter, believes that the media and creators of popular culture have a key role. If coverage and conversations about women’s leadership are to have sustained impacts,
“we need to do it consistently in a routine, regular and critical manner,” she says. The universality of Covid-19 has put gendered leadership under a microscope; and the election of Kamala Harris has been a big news story in India, where Harris’ mother was born. Chawla advocates for building on this momentum to avoid complacency around gender equality, or the perception that one extraordinary event is sufficient.
“One woman serving for long terms may not be enough. It still reinforces the stereotype that women in office are the exception and not the norm.”
At the policy level, gender quotas and childcare support are among the tools that clearly improve women’s participation in leadership roles. Individual workplaces can nurture women leaders by e.g. supporting networks of role models, mature leave for both parents and enabling flexible work.
Essential to changing hearts and minds
Changing hearts and minds will be harder, but it’s essential. At an individual level, gaining certain life experiences may help to counter gender bias. Yoshikuni Ono, a political scientist at Waseda University in Tokyo, comments that in Japan, older men may witness frequent discrimination against women colleagues and partners, making them more sensitive to the need for women leaders. In the US, men whose first children are daughters are more likely to support female political candidates.
“The parents have to think about the model that they are personally providing, because that’s going to be one of the child’s most important models ever,” says Eagly. If mothers and fathers stick to traditional divisions of labour within the home, and if girls are directed into nurturing roles while boys are nudged into decision-making positions, then it’s unsurprising that beliefs about women’s leadership potential will remain frozen.
Eagly emphasises that from what’s happening at home to what’s happening on TV, the visibility of women leaders will shape such views. “We can’t just imagine it, we have to see it.”
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