By: Sharmla Chetty
It pains me to see that trust in women leaders has fallen according to the latest results from The Reykjavik Index for Leadership, but I am not surprised.
The report itself struggles to conclude why trust levels have dropped but suggests there are long-standing gender biases and prejudices that exist in our society which are perpetuated by the media, by deep rooted cultural norms, and supercharged by the political landscape and the pandemic. In other words, there is no hard data to support the results, it’s driven by perception.
On the contrary, there is data to show that women leaders have demonstrated strong leadership throughout the global pandemic. For example, according to a Covid study of 194 countries by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum, countries led by women had “systematically and significantly better” outcomes suffering half as many deaths on average as those led by men.
Additionally, female political leaders and public figures are often targeted and harassed online or by the media. At a recent media conference between Finland’s Sanna Marin and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, a male journalist asked if they were meeting because they are both women and of a similar age. This is a condescending question never asked of men.
Not only do these micro-aggressions discredit women, but they also have devastating effects on perpetuating negative perception of our women leaders, which in turn can discourage other women seeking or aspiring towards leadership roles.
The Reykjavik findings support this, stating “Perception matters: it manifests in numerous and deepening inequalities across every aspect of society, government, and business. It leads to further prejudice in the education choices and opportunities offered to girls; it impacts the paths of careers, interrupting earning potential and access to basic livelihoods.”
Consider the devastating cost to businesses and our society at large if this continues. Time and time again research has shown companies that invest in gender diversity at an executive level are more likely to have above-average profitability. While companies with more than 30% senior female leadership were more likely to outperform those that don’t.
Yet this latest survey revealing declining trust for women in leadership shows us that there is still much to be done at all levels – whether it is individuals, private organisations, or policymakers – everyone has a role to play by not looking away. Instead, we need to step up and use our voices to create real change.
Women’s rights should not be relegated to a day, or even a month, but remain central to the strategy of every business. Currently only eight women, and no women of colour, are employed as CEOs in the FTSE 100. Quotas alone will not shift the gender scale for female representation in corporate boards and leadership teams. We need companies to be transparent and accountable in relation to gender-equal hiring practices and promotion processes. There should also be policies introduced to close the gender pay gap, increase financial support for female-led businesses, and improve the protection of women from workplace discrimination and sexual harassment.
The data is clear. The research is solid. Inequality remains a challenge to our gender. And yet, I have hope, as I have witnessed the efforts of many strong female leaders in my time at Duke Corporate Education who have been at the forefront of progress for many decades. It is more important than ever for us to recognise and celebrate their work as they have shown us that the success of every woman has inspired another who has followed in their footsteps.