How Perceptions of Women Leaders Influence Society and What We Can Do About It

Evidence is fundamental in public policy and social progress. To achieve  equality between women and men, we need to understand values, perceptions and attitudes. Not measuring would mean not having an overview of whether we have achieved success or failure.

Women Political Leaders, in cooperation with Kantar, have created The Reykjavik Index for Leadership to support the journey to equality for women and men. The index was launched in November 2018, during the Women Leaders Global Forum in Iceland.

The Reykjavik Index for Leadership

There are powerful indices to measure progress in economic equality for women and men; however, as yet, there are no measures of how people feel about women and men in leadership roles.

The Right to Leadership is a key factor in the journey to true equality between women and men. The Reykjavik Index for Leadership, and the wider study behind it, illuminates attitudes and perceptions, as a means to understand how much further we have to go until being a woman or a man is a non-issue when debating suitability for leadership.

Equality in leadership will diminish prejudices not just against women, but also against men in certain leadership roles. Our explicit goal is to reach Index scores of 100, meaning  there is complete agreement that women and men are perceived as equally suited to leadership. This score would represent a tangible sign of equality: evidence will support the endeavours.

The G7: Headlines

The Reykjavik Index for Leadership for the G7 countries taken collectively in 2018 is 66. The Index shows that the G7 divides into two groups of countries.

First, there is a group of four that have higher indices: the UK (72), France (71), Canada (71), and the USA (70). The higher scores in these four nations are an indication that progress is happening.

There is then a group of three which are a step below: Japan (61), Germany (59) and Italy (57). 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 depending on the sector. In these nations, traditional or sexist stereotypes about men’s roles or women’s roles are more embedded than in the other four countries.

Male/female Dissonance

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 twenty sectors researched.

The 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 women and men are most closely aligned in the UK in terms of who is suitable to lead. 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.  For 42% of people in Theresa May’s UK, a woman as head of government is still an issue of some kind.  In Angela Merkel’s Germany, we see the highest levels of male/female dissonance.

Sector Variation

The sector with the highest Reykjavik Index for Leadership score is Media and Entertainment (80). In this sector, perceptions of equal suitability for leadership for women and for men is the highest: 85% of women in the G7, and 80% of men in the G7 think that women and men are equally suited to leadership in this industry.

Similarly, the Index score is also above 75 for some STEM careers: Natural Sciences, Pharmaceutical and Medical Research, Economics and Banking and Finance.

However, the strength of some stereotypes endures in other sectors, as our Index shows that there are majority-held stereotypical views that women are more suitable to lead for Childcare, Fashion and Beauty, whereas men are perceived as more suitable leaders in Defence and Police.

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. In this, two countries stand out.

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

Only 1 in 4 people in Germany feel ‘very comfortable’ with a woman as head of government, meaning 3 in 4 people do not feel very comfortable with this.

In Japan, only 1 in 5 men (21%) state they feel ‘very comfortable’ with a woman as CEO of a major company in Japan. This is also true for 3 in 10 Japanese women (28%).

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

Moving Forward

The Index and the wider study have given us clear insight into the powerful dissonance at play across the G7 and within the individual countries. Men and women are holding similar degrees of prejudice, reminding us of the efforts needed to overcome the social phenomenon of sexism.

More work needs to be done so that the male/female dissonance is reduced, and the tensions in workplaces, homes and communities are removed.

In the future, we will extend this survey to other nations, giving us greater evidence as a powerful tool for social progress. The Index will help us to understand how we can progress faster towards equal attitudes about women and men in leadership — for the benefit of all.

Silvana Koch-Mehrin is President and Founder of the Women Political Leaders (WPL), the worldwide network of female Politicians. WPL is an independent, non-partisan and not-for-profit foundation. Its mission is to increase the number and influence of women in political leadership.