Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

How do we really feel about women in leadership?

Research shows a surprising number of Brits and Germans are uncomfortable with a women in leadership role

Research shows a surprising number of Brits and Germans are uncomfortable with a women in leadership role Image: REUTERS/Axel Schmidt

Silvana Koch-Mehrin
Founder and President, Women Political Leaders
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Gender Inequality

  • Women Political Leaders (WPL), in cooperation with Kantar, have created G7 Reykjavik Index for Leadership to measure the progress of women in leadership.
  • The study reports the existence of prevalent prejudices against women in leadership roles in some G7 countries, while others have made progress.

Over the last two years, the movement for fairness and equality between men and women has found renewed energy and conviction around the world. In public life, in politics, in business and across different economic sectors, women and men have been working for change and a world where economic opportunity is no longer shaped and constrained by being a man or a woman.

Evidence is an essential tool in shaping public policy and social progress. To support the cause of equality of men and women in leadership, we need to understand values, perceptions and attitudes, the speed of change or the failure to realise it, and the drivers and barriers along the way towards building a fairer world. We need to document social norms, the everyday beliefs and behaviours of men and women, and the interplay of the drivers for change against those of stasis. We need to do this so that we can challenge our social norms, and we need to measure change over time to hold ourselves and our leaders to account.

Women Political Leaders (WPL), in cooperation with Kantar, have created The Reykjavik Index for Leadership to support the journey to equality for women and men. It was launched during the Women Leaders Global Forum in Iceland, in November 2018, and this inaugural report focuses on the G7 nations. So - how do people in these countries feel about women as leaders?

The findings on equality between men and women in leadership

There are valuable and powerful indices available that measure progress in economic equality for men and women. However, as yet there are no measures of how people feel about men and women in leadership roles. The Reykjavik Index for Leadership and the wider study behind it illuminate these attitudes and perceptions, as a means to understand how much further we have to go until being a man or woman is a non-issue when debating the suitability of someone for leadership across the whole economy.

 Equality of attitudes to women in leadership in the G7 nations, scored out of 100
Equality of attitudes to women in leadership in the G7 nations, scored out of 100

The right to leadership is a key factor in the journey to true equality between women and men. Furthermore, equality for both in leadership will diminish prejudices not just against women, but also against men in certain leadership roles in society. This study reveals prejudices against both men and women, but the majority are against women in leadership roles.

Our explicit goal is to reach Index scores of 100, which will indicate that there is complete agreement that men and women are equally suited to leadership across the economy. This will be a tangible sign of equality - and we believe the evidence will support our endeavours to reach that milestone.

Attitudes to women in leadership across the G7 - the headlines

The Reykjavik Index for Leadership for the G7 nations in this, our launch year, is 66. The Index shows that the G7 divides into two groups of countries. First, a group of four that have higher indices: the UK (72), France (71), Canada (71), and the US (70). The higher scores in these four nations are an indication that progress is happening. However, there is still a long way to go in these countries before we see complete acceptance of men and women in leadership roles - and thus equality for men and women.

There is then a group of three which are a step change below: Japan (61), Germany (59) and Italy (57). Relative to those in the other G7 countries, people in these three nations are more likely to think women and men are not equally suited to leadership positions generally.

Furthermore, their views are more likely to vary by sector, meaning in these nations, traditional or sexist stereotypes about men’s roles or women’s roles are more embedded than in the other four countries.

Dissonance towards men and women in leadership

Across the G7, the Reykjavik Index for Leadership is higher for women (67) than for men (61). This means that women in the G7 are more likely than men to view women and men as equally suitable for leadership roles. This is the case for both the overall G7 and also within every individual G7 nation and in each of the 20 sectors covered in the research.

This dissonance between men and women reflects tensions and barriers that are at play not just at work, but also at home and in people’s personal communities.

For example, the views of men and women are most closely aligned in the UK in terms of who is suitable to lead, women or men. On average, across the twenty sectors, 78% of women in the UK think men and women are equally suited to lead, compared to 75% of men thinking the same. Nonetheless, for 42% of people in the UK - a country led by Prime Minister Theresa May - having women in leadership is still an issue of some kind.

We see the highest levels of male/female dissonance in Angela Merkel’s Germany. Furthermore, men in Germany are the most likely of all men in the G7 to be perpetuating stereotypes about who should lead in the 20 sectors we researched.

These are just two examples of some of the tensions at play within G7 nations, and where stereotypes may be more resistant to change.

Sector differences on attitudes towards women in leadership at the G7 level
Sector differences on attitudes towards women in leadership at the G7 level Image: Women Political Leaders, Kantar

How do attitudes vary between sectors?

There are some surprising and encouraging findings from the Index and the wider study. For example, the sector with the highest Reykjavik Index for Leadership score - that is, perceptions of equal suitability for men and women in leadership - is media and entertainment, with 80. Indeed, 85% of women and 80% of men in the G7 believe men and women are equally suited to leadership in this industry.

Similarly, the Index score is also above 75 for some science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers, such as natural sciences, pharmaceutical and medical research, economics and political science, and banking and finance. This may demonstrate attitudes that have developed as a result of the investment and encouragement of women and girls in STEM education in recent years.

However, some strong stereotypes endures in other sectors. Our index shows that for childcare, fashion and beauty, and defence and policing, there are majority-held stereotypical views about who is suitable to lead.

These stereotypes are barriers to equality not just for women, but for men also as stereotypes about suitable careers and sexist attitudes continue to be perpetuated.

Germany and Japan

The study highlights where being a man or being a woman is seen as an issue in terms of who is suitable to lead. Here, two countries stand out.

As part of the wider study, we asked if people would feel ‘very comfortable’ having women in leadership - like the head of government, or as the CEO of a major company in their country.

Only one in four people in Germany feel ‘very comfortable’ with a woman as head of government, meaning three in four people do not feel very comfortable with this.

In Japan, only one in five men - 21% - say they feel ‘very comfortable’ with a woman as CEO of a major company in Japan. This is also true for three in 10 Japanese women (28%).

Being a woman in a position of leadership, business or government is clearly an issue for many people in Germany and Japan. The impacts of these attitudes go beyond polling stations and boardrooms; they affect wider perceptions of women’s abilities to lead and indicate sizeable barriers to equality.

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Moving forward

The index and the wider study have given us a clear insight into the powerful dissonance at play across the G7 and within the group’s individual countries towards men and women in leadership roles. Men and women hold similar degrees of prejudice, reminding us of the efforts needed to overcome the social phenomenon of sexism.

The results also show how women are pulling ahead in their views of men and women being equally suitable to lead. These are signs of progress, yet more work needs to be done to reduce male/female dissonance, and to remove the tensions in our workplaces, homes and communities.

In the future, we will extend this survey to other nations, giving us greater evidence to use to help drive social progress. The index will help us to understand how we can more quickly see attitudes about men and women in leadership reach equality, to the benefit of all.

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