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Changing stereotypes: The first step to getting women into leadership roles

Stereotypes are arguably one of the most detrimental barriers which keep women out of leadership roles. The way that women are portrayed throughout the world–whether in media, politics, or daily life– continually re-enforce those stereotypes. 

During the Reykjavík Global Forum 2019 session “Acting on Evidence,” Michelle Harrison, the Global CEO of Public Division at Kantar, and moderator of the session, revealed the findings and read the results of the Reykjavík Leadership Index. She focused on one question: “How comfortable is society with women leaders?” 

Overwhelmingly, even countries with the highest scores on the Index, people didn’t have the belief that women are as capable of leading as men. How can that change?

Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, CEO of Plan International and Co-Chair of the Reykajavík Global Forum, highlighted that there are several major industries and institutions that need to spearhead these changes, to help change the perceptions of the general public. 

The advertising and film industries, as well as educational institutions, need to change their approach to female representation. For example, as Albrectsen pointed out, in Indian school books, women are always depicted in caring roles, never as leaders. The education sector is among the most influential in shaping opinions and perceptions from a young age. 

Despite these portrayals, girls are still aspiring to be more than homemakers. “Girls and young women want to lead,” said Albrectsen. “Seventy-five percent of 10,000 girls that we interviewed over the last year, across 20 countries in the world, tell us that they actually want to lead.”

As they grow and they become more aware of the world in which they are being raised, they start to see the prejudice that women face. Fear of being criticised, taken advantage of, or embarrassed holds them back from acting on those dreams. That fear is perpetrated by the real-life stories and experiences they hear from women. 

This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been change. Hiltrud Werner, Member of the Board of Management, Integrity, and Legal Affairs at Volkswagen AG has seen this change within her very own company, in the man-dominated auto industry. “When I took over my board positions, I had 17% of women in management,” said Werner. “Now I have almost doubled it in three years.” 

But more change needs to happen. “Part of the urgency of now is getting out of an attitude of complacency,” said Uzra Zeya, President and CEO of The Alliance for Peacebuilding. Ultimately, we shouldn’t settle for the change there has been, but ensure that the momentum continues. The conversation is far from over. 

The goal is simple: “We’re looking for a world where there is no gender discrimination,” said Harrison. “Where the natural answer is, ‘It doesn’t matter.’”