Exclusion happens in part when we hold too narrow of an image of what "an ideal worker"should be and exclude anyone that does not look and sound like that image. Limited perception on a collective level limits our collective experience.
This culturally conditioned blindness contributes to the persistent underrepresentation of women in leadership: the image of leadership is still skewed towards men.
Do We Perceive Men and Women as Equally Suitable to Lead?
The Reykjavik Index For Leadership was created in 2018 to answer the question: does society think women and men are equally suitable to lead? The index gauges prejudice in society’s perceptions towards leadership and gender across 23 sectors in different countries.
The specific question asked is: “Do you think men or women are better suited to leadership positions?” The possible answers are ‘men’, ‘women’ or ‘both equally’ for 23 different workplace sectors. A score of 100 would mean that men and women are viewed to be equally suited for positions of power in all sectors, having an equal opportunity to lead in each.
To the dismay of the researchers, the Reykjavik Index is failing to progress and, as of 2020/2021, remains at an average of 73. When it comes to the G7, the country scores are: UK and Canada (81), US (76), France (74), Italy and Japan (68) and Germany (66).
The researchers refer to this as “the gap between the ‘birthright’ of equality for men, and the everyday reality of women’s experiences with inequality across the world.”
Within the overall Reykjavik Index research, a few dynamics stand out:
- Women are more likely than men to perceive both genders as equally suitable to lead. Across the G7, the index is 77 for women respondents and 70 for men. The index is higher for women in every sector in every country, meaning that women perceive each other as more suitable to leadership than men perceive them to be. The researchers highlight that this means that women also continue to carry more of the burden of advocating for gender equality within leadership.
- Younger people (18-34) are less likely to perceive women and men are equally suitable to lead across the different sectors. Across the G7, the index is 72 for 18-34 year-olds, 74 for 35-54 year-olds, and 76 for 55-65 year-olds. This attitude gap by age towards women’s suitability for leadership is most marked in France, Germany and UK.
- Within this youngest group (18-34), there is the biggest gap between male and female perceptions. Across the G7, the index is 67 for young men 18-34 compared to 76 for their female peers. This gap of 9 points between sexes is even greater in Italy (16 points) and Germany (11 points). Young men have the least progressive attitudes towards equality for men and women in leadership.
Additionally, on a sector basis, women are more likely to be perceived as equally suitable for leadership in pharma/medical research (G7 average index 80) as well as in economics/political science (G7 average index 81) and banking and finance (G7 average index 80), but nonetheless remain highly under-represented in researcher roles and leadership roles in those fields, respectively, with big gender pay gaps.
And though women dominate the healthcare/well-being sector, they are less likely in the sector to be perceived as equally suitable for leadership (71 index) and are very underrepresented in leadership roles and high profile decision-making teams.
How Perceptions Impact Women’s Career Paths
As the Reykjavik Index researchers note, “Perception matters: it manifests in numerous and deepening inequalities across every aspect of society, government, and business.”
Gender perceptions impact educational tracks taken, career paths, career progress, relationship dynamics, and earning potential. It’s why fields like health, learning and PR are full of women at entry level, but the gender ratio becomes inverted at the leadership level. Perceptions form a large part of our collective unconscious bias. The societal projection of stereotypes affects how people perceive themselves, too; this is called stereotype threat and results in a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, gender stereotypes in STEM corrupt female students' sense of self-concept regardless of high grades.
Consider the experiment where teacher Rita Pierson inspired a classroom of struggling students in an underprivileged community to succeed by reframing how they perceived themselves: telling them she was the best teacher and they were the best students and they were put together to show everyone how to do learning.
Consider how in 1984, women represented 37% of computer science majors and that number flattened and then plunged (currently less than half that at 18%) because the cultural narrative pushed women out of belonging in STEM and computer sciences.
Consider how not even a Harvard MBA is enough to bridge the gender gap when it comes to career progression and satisfaction because women’s professional and personal lives do not unfold as close to their expectations and desires as men’s do.
Consider that the Reykjavik Index has not moved despite the fact that women political country leaders were judged to handle the pandemic better - or how the gap exists in Germany despite Angela Merkel’s 16 year stint as chancellor that ended in 2021.
It’s simple. The cultural distortion in leadership perception means that women are swimming against the perceptual tide, while men are swimming with it.
Catalyst President and CEO Lorraine Hariton has noted that: “Despite all the changes that happen, we are still dealing with the culture that was developed in the Industrial Revolution, that still has a male privilege.”
And Nicki Gilmour, CEO and Founder of theglasshammer, pointed out that we’re still largely stuck in the “Think Manager, Think Male” bias that was established over 40 years ago. She questions: “When what’s been holding everything up is the structural walls of rules that clearly don’t favor meritocracy, due to flawed cognitive and social constructs around who gets to lead, is the work that is needed to be centered differently?”
Transforming Society for Real Gender Equality in Leadership
When the doorway is a fixed shape, do you contort yourself to fit through it or do you broaden the entryway? Contortion to fit is an adaptive coping mechanism to exclusion, whereas diversifying the doorway represents inclusion.
Leadership requires a wider, more expansive and more inclusive image that isn’t stuck in the antiquated mold of what was once predominantly designed for a patriarchal society. When we are culturally conditioned to perceive, reinforce and repeat this expectation - even beyond gender - too many people are excluded from the narrow image of leadership. To transform society, we need to transform perceptions, our own self-concepts and our systems, while actively mitigating unconscious bias. It’s chicken and egg: changing perceptions to change experiences, changing experiences to change perceptions.
As examples, LinkedIn is focusing on widening the image of professionalism. IGNITE trains young women from historically marginalized communities to develop their political leadership potential and flip the script on what makes you qualified to lead. Children’s book publishers have had a call-out for girls and science themes for years concurrent to a STEM talent shortage and absence of women after they experienced exclusionary behavior and career development.
So is society ready for women to lead, equally? While readiness is relevant to what is happening, it is not relevant to what is possible. We just experienced a leap beyond readiness when it came to remote working. Why not for women in leadership?