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Why are we still uncomfortable with female leaders?

German chancellor Angela Merkel, right, with New Zealand's prime minister Jacinda Ardern in Berlin in April 2018. Photo: John Macdougall/AFP via Getty
German chancellor Angela Merkel, right, with New Zealand's prime minister Jacinda Ardern in Berlin in April 2018. Photo: John Macdougall/AFP via Getty

Women hold more positions of leadership than ever before. In 2019, Finland's Sanna Marin was sworn in as prime minister as part of an all-women coalition. This year, Kamala Harris became the first female, first black and first Asian-American US vice-president. Jacinda Ardern, who has been leading New Zealand since 2017, has been lauded for her leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite this, many studies on the state of women in leadership reinforce something many of us already know. Namely, that women have to speak louder to be heard half as often, aren’t given the credit they deserve for their success, and face stubborn and deeply-entrenched biases that stand in their way.

Although there are more women in public positions of leadership, there is still a dearth of female leaders. Women serve as heads of state or government in only 21 countries, and 119 countries have never had a woman leader. At the current rate, parity in the highest decisions of power will not be reached for another 130 years. Only 4.9% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 2% of S&P 500 CEOs are women, and those numbers are in decline globally.

Women score more highly than men in most leadership skills, including the ability to take initiative, be resilient, driving for results, being bold and practicing self-development. Yet research suggests there’s an enduring sense of mistrust of women in positions of leadership.

The Reykjavík Index, which surveyed more than 20,000 adults in G7 countries on their attitudes towards female leadership, only 41% of people in Germany said they felt very comfortable with a woman being the head of government. 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. The average score for government and politics across the board was 78 out of 100.

These statistics can be attributed to many factors. Stereotypes and gender biases take a long time to dissipate, and there is still an ingrained belief that women choose not to aim for the highest positions - and take themselves out of the running.

READ MORE: Why women on boards are good for business

“Leadership has been historically associated with men and so for women leaders they are challenging both the gendered norms of a leader and for women,” says Kate Sang, a professor of gender and employment studies at Heriot-Watt University.

“When we ask people to think of famous leaders we often hear people mention male leaders, especially when we think of business. Leadership is associated with traits such as toughness, decisiveness, courage, risk taking and bravery – traits traditionally associated with masculinity rather than femininity,” she says. “Ultimately we then see women who do manage to make their way through a range of environments which are hostile to their very presence, mistrusted as leaders.”

Additionally, behaviours are not judged the same way when they are exhibited by men and women, Sang explains. If women are assertive, a key leadership trait, they’re labelled “bossy” or “bitchy.” Research shows their fears are justified, as women are far more likely to be assessed on their voices and personalities than men.

“Ultimately these gender biases have not disappeared and women have to navigate these in order to succeed,” says Sang. “However, sometimes a woman leader takes these stereotypes and uses them to her advantage.”

Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen delivers a New Year's Talk at the Office of The President, in Taipei, Taiwan, on 1 January. Photo: Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto via Getty
Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen delivers a New Year's Talk at the Office of The President, in Taipei, Taiwan, on 1 January. Photo: Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto via Getty

A good example is president Tsai Ing-wen, the first woman to be elected president of Taiwan in 2016. Part of her successful election campaign was to use her pets – specifically her two cats – as part of her election materials. “She subverted the stereotype of a single woman with cats and used it to appeal to younger voters,” Sang says.

A key problem with gender stereotyping is that it can lead to women internalising the myth that they don’t have the right attributes for leadership, impacting their confidence. Research published in the Harvard Business Review in 2019 suggests that when women assess themselves, they’re far less likely to be generous than men in assuming their competence. As the researchers highlight, these findings fit other studies that show women are less likely to apply for jobs unless they are confident they meet most of the listed qualifications.

READ MORE: Why sexist microaggressions are holding women back at work

Although the uptick in women leaders is progress, it doesn’t mean gender equity has been achieved. One woman in a leadership position does not mean the barriers that have prevented others from progressing have disappeared. Ultimately, Sang reminds us, these women have often succeeded despite the system, not because of it.

“It’s therefore essential that women in leadership positions do not pull the ladder up behind them,” she says. “A handful of very visible women in leadership positions can falsely lead people to think that gender equality has been achieved, just as many argued that president Obama’s election meant that racism in the US was no longer a structural barrier for people of colour.”

Such highly visible individuals can become tokens that are used to justify no further structural or cultural changes. “We must also remember that those who do succeed have often done so by emulating the behaviours and traits of the dominant group and so the underpinning gender biases are reinforced rather than challenged,” Sang says.

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