For years, it’s seemed as though gender equality lay just over the horizon: a few more steps in the right direction and we’ll be there. But if recent events have taught us anything, it’s that a level playing field for women and men is not an inevitability.
In the UK, where I am currently visiting, it’s been revealed that sexual harassment has long plagued women in politics, the media, as well as other professions not so squarely in the public eye. And whether it’s the senior levels of politics, business or the law, the number of women is depressingly low. It’s therefore not surprising that the most recent gender pay gap data, which large companies have been forced by law to reveal in the last few weeks, shows few good results and some truly shocking ones.
Let me assure you, I am not an Aussie visitor who enjoys criticising Britain. The UK is not an anomaly. Every gender issue here plays out around the world, including in Australia.
Indeed, statistics show women still make up only around one in seven corporate board members and fewer than one in ten senior IT leaders globally. In addition, it has been estimated that it will take more than two centuries until women around the world have the same pay and employment opportunities as men.
What’s driving these results?
Overt sexism and discrimination are still factors, to be sure. But there are other, more insidious forces at play. Social science is showing us that a gender gap exists in whose opinions we respect and thus choose to amplify. Recent studies have shown that men and women find tweets more credible when associated with a male name. When the tweets are on political topics, this credibility gap is even more pronounced. Similar results have been found for sport and science topics.
Equally, the criteria we use when making such judgements may not always be related to successful performance. For example, it’s been said that many people have a subliminal idea of an effective politician – they display confidence and carry themselves with a swagger. Despite not being a good indicator of ability, characteristics such as these tend to be associated more with men. Research also shows both women and men are prone to conclude that women leaders aren’t likeable, whereas leadership and likeability are much more commonly packaged together in our perceptions of men.
In a world where performance metrics, from teaching evaluations to the number of social media followers we have, are increasingly decided by how others view us, the need to bridge this unfair divide in perceptions of credibility and competence is all the more pressing.
Certainly two hundred years is too long to wait for the dawn of gender equality. I won’t live that long and neither will you. So if we want to see real gender equality in our lifetimes, we need to work out what is going wrong and fix it.
To do exactly that – analyse the problems and devise effective strategies to overcome them – I’m setting up a new Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London. The institute will bring together rigorous research, practice and advocacy to better understand and address the causes of women’s underrepresentation in leadership positions and the way gender negatively impacts the evaluation of women leaders.
There is a lot we don’t know. Women’s leadership is an area where there is already a considerable amount of work taking place, and we need to harness this existing enthusiasm. Many governments, companies and individuals are committed to addressing this challenge. But despite huge amounts of money being spent on programmes to support women’s leadership, it’s not clear if any of it works. As one of our early research challenges, the Institute will bring rigour to properly assessing these efforts and highlighting what is truly effective. This will mean that future resources can be better focused on where they will do the most good.
It’s also important to remember that while leaders are necessarily “elite” in the sense there will always be relatively few of them, they needn’t come from society’s elite. I know that from personal experience, having been born in a working class family in Barry, Wales. I am therefore confident that if we pay attention to intersecting forms of disadvantage as we create a world where gender is not a barrier to leadership, it will help ensure a far wider range of people can become leaders in the future.
I’m looking forward to tackling this challenge, and to hearing new ideas on how we can hasten change. We’ve waited long enough.
Julia Gillard is the only woman to have served as Prime Minister of Australia, and is the chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership