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Reykjavík Index for Leadership Shows ‘Striking’ Lack of Progress

As leaders around the world grapple with recovery amid the devastation caused by COVID-19, there’s been a striking absence of progress in social attitudes on equality between men and women according to recent findings by the Reykjavík Index for Leadership 2020-2021

The Reykjavik Index which measures global perceptions on women’s and men’s suitability for leadership is a collaborative project headed by Women Political Leaders (WPL) and Kantar, the global market research leader.

Following the analysis of data from 20,000 respondents, findings were presented by Michelle Harrison, Global CEO of Kantar’s Public Division, and then discussed at a virtual event hosted by WPL and The Female Quotient in conjunction with the World Economic Forum’s Davos Agenda, taking place online this week. 

“A look at the average score for the G7 countries which we can now track across three years shows very little change,” Harrison noted. “This can be regarded as the gap between the ‘birthright’ of equality for men, and the everyday reality of women’s experiences with inequality across the world.” The average score for G7 countries in this year’s edition of the Index is 74, against a maximum of 100 (which would represent complete societal agreement that men and women are equally suited to leadership in all sectors). 

Complicity in Prejudice

Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir, Senior Advisor on Women’s Leadership at UN Women, Chair of the Reykjavík Global Forum Board, and a WPL Board Member, who chaired the session, pointed out that prejudice “is not fixed to women. We are seeing prejudice also toward men when they do not choose traditional roles.”

Index findings for 2020 showed the UK and Canada tied for the highest score (at 81), both having increased from the previous year’s assessment. Among the most important takeaways from the study are that both men and women are complicit in prejudice, that young men are significantly less progressive in their views compared with young women, and that young people are less progressive overall than their older counterparts in the G7 region. 

“The data does draw our attention to the urgency of how we raise young people in our society,” said Harrison. “We are all part of this, whether parenting, teaching, et cetera. All of us have a role to play to soften the stereotypes that youths are bombarded with.”

Obiageli Ezekwesili, Public Policy Expert and Senior Economic Adviser at AEDPI, 2018 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Nigerian presidential candidate in 2019, and a WPL Board Member, remarked that the Index reveals that attitudes are the hardest things to change. “We can’t think that, in talking about this for a decade, we will expect to see change,” Ezekwesili observed. “One of the reasons for prejudice against female leadership is that society judges women for their failures. Society forgets men’s flaws and failures, but not women’s.”

Retreating to Stereotypes

Victoria Budson, Global Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Bain Capital, which owns a majority stake in Kantar, told the discussants that people tend to revert to stereotypes when they perceive that they are under threat. 

“In order to solve very large global problems, it will take everyone working together and utilizing all our talent,” Budson said. “We cannot leave any talent on the sidelines. I encourage people to work even with those who do not align with their way of thinking.”

Peter Limbourg, Director General of Deutsche Welle, supported this view: “I think we’re living in very polarised times, and the surge of right-wing populism doesn’t help. There are people telling society that ‘going back to the ’50s is a good thing’ and of course most of these people are male.” 

Expanding on this analysis and considering Nigeria newly surveyed by the Reykavík Index this year, thanks to partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Obiageli Ezekwesili also pointed out that her country, “like many others, has prejudice towards female leadership because we have been for a long time under a military regiment. And military regiments are all about men.”

In the session’s final remarks, former Prime Minister of New Zealand (1999-2008) Helen Clark, also a former Administrator of the UN Development Programme (2009-2017) and current Chair of the WPL Board, said that while the Reykjavík Index scores are “sobering,” they are nonetheless a valuable lens through which we can see how to improve the path toward equality. That goal will be more important than ever in a post-pandemic world, Clark concluded, because “returning to an outdated order based on inequality is neither viable nor desirable.”