Evolving perceptions on Women and Leadership

A recent survey administered to 10,000 girls in 19 countries found that 76% aspired to be a leader in their country, community, or professional life. However, after some years have passed, that inclination wanes. This phenomenon seems to be becoming more and more prominent.  Why?

I teach and work in academia, and thus, it goes without saying: the future and the opportunities it holds for students is fundamental. Many of those students are young women with dreams of becoming leaders who can make an impact on their world. For example, 65% of our most recent intake in International Relations is femaleYet of the 500 biggest global companies, only 5% have a woman as CEO; only an average of 24% of the seats in national parliaments are held by women; and only and average of 20% of full professors in European universities are women.

What is preventing women from taking up leadership roles, when so many are ready and willing to do so?  It comes down to a matter of how female leadership is perceived by both men and women in various sectors and dimensions. There are three avenues through which we can change this perception: culture, organizational practices, and the individual behaviors.

Considering culture, we can analyze perceptions at a country level. The Reykjavik Index for leadership, prepared by Kantar Public, measures gender equality by country in relation to perceptions of suitability for positions of power. The Index, which evaluates the G7 groups of nations, surveying the attitudes of more than 10,000 people, runs from 0 to 100; a score of 100 signifying complete agreement across society that men and women are equally suited to leadership in all sectors.

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Unfortunately, more than half (54%) of people in the G-7 nations are not ‘very comfortable’ with a woman as CEO of a major company in their country, and 57% do not feel ‘very comfortable’ with a woman as head of government in their country. A closer look at the data shows 60%-63% of the men compared to 48%-52% of the women not feeling comfortable with these statistics. It is troubling indeed that a high percentage of both men and women do not consider female leadership a viable option.

The results of the study do vary by countries, clustering in two groups, with France, the UK, Canada and the US exhibiting a higher percentage of people perceiving men and women as equally suitable for leadership, and with Germany, Italy and Japan on the opposite end of the spectrum. It is interesting to note that while the UK and Germany have both counted women as heads of government, the UK’s Reykjavik Index for Leadership score stands at 71, and Germany’s at 59. Thus, it is not simply a matter of having women in visible leadership positions, rather how that plays out in the culture of a given country.

Looking at organizational practices, we can consider the perceptions within private companies. The Lee Hecht Harrison (LHH) report, ‘Elevating women in Leadership’, surveyed human resource executives in the United States and found that 82% believed female leadership to be a critical business issue, and only 28% were satisfied with their organization’s ability to elevate women into leadership roles. Again, we have a disconnect.

It is now common knowledge that diversity helps the bottom line. McKinsey found in their ‘Diversity Matters’ report that companies in the top quartile for diversity were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

So if gender balance in leadership positions can add to diversity, which increases revenues and most senior executives believe in the importance of women in leadership, why can’t –or don’t– organizations deliver women into top positions?  

The LHH report answers this question in a positive way detailing four key practices that organizations use to promote women in the top diverse companies:

• Gender bias-free people practices.

• Develop people leader skills to manage diverse talent.

• Address pay equity.

• Provide flexible work.

Finally, the individual behavior of girls and young women reveals much about how perception impacts a woman’s path to leadership. For example, Plan International’s report ‘Taking the Lead, achieve true equality in leadership’ found that although 76% of the young women surveyed (10,000 from 19 countries) said they aspire to be leaders in their country, community, or career, and 62% felt confident in their abilities, not many of them step forward. According to the report, the young women chose not to purse leadership positions because of discrimination (94% believe women are not treated as well as men in leadership positions), sexual harassment (93% believe female leaders will have experienced unwanted physical contact) or other issues such as marriage or gendered expectations.  In addition, career aspirations in girls tend to increase with education and social standing.

These results make clear that there is still much work to be done to obtain equal opportunities for men and women in terms of leading governments, private companies, and communities.

El autor es presidente de la asociación de antiguos alumnos y amigos de la Harvard Kennedy School en España

(*) This article is the result of the discussions and data highlighted during the annual Gender and Growth Forum ‘Shaping the future we want’, organized and held by the Chatham House. A committed group of action-oriented policymakers, business leaders, entrepreneurs, activists and academics were gathered to generate key policy ideas and to find solutions in order to provide recommendations for the next G-20 summit.


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