We’ve just had a year of seeing women leaders around the world demonstrate strong, decisive leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. We also recently saw our first female vice president, a woman of color and mixed heritage, take office and be an effective leader. But research from the Reykjavik Index shows that there is still a sense of mistrust and doubt about the ability of women to lead.
The Reykjavik Index for Leadership 2020-2021 surveyed 20,000 people in the G7 nations and measured their perceptions about women leaders. It turns out that a great many people, even in countries with established female leadership such as Germany, still feel uncomfortable with the idea of having a woman lead, be it in the political sector or the business sector.
The ongoing mistrust of women leaders has real consequences and is reflected in the disparity of leadership, such as the fact that women make up only 5 percent of all Fortune 500 CEOs. While we’ve come a long way from women not being able to vote or not having any female CEOs at all, the fact that so many people are still uncomfortable with female leadership shows we still have a long way to go before we can achieve true equality. To keep pushing towards progress, however, it’s worth trying to get a deeper understanding of why such mistrust persists and what can be done about it.
It’s More Than Just Implicit Bias
Implicit gender bias, or unconscious beliefs about why women can’t lead, has been one of the most common explanations for ongoing gender inequality in leadership. Examples of unconscious (and sometimes conscious) beliefs include the idea that women are “too emotional” or “too soft.” There may be different or additional biases when you add race to the mix, such as the “angry Black woman” stereotype.
I certainly think implicit bias is part of why people continue to lack faith in female leadership. But human society and psychology are complex, and often there are multiple forces behind inequalities that resist change. I think there are other forces that coexist with implicit gender bias and cause leadership inequality to persist despite all the research showing how effective women leaders can be. Two of these forces are impostor syndrome and masculine anxiety.
A lot of the writing on impostor syndrome is very gendered and presents it as a woman’s problem. Well-intentioned writers often urge women to be more confident, but this puts the onus on women when we should also be critiquing the social and institutional factors that cause women to doubt their success in the first place. Also, not only do both men and women experience impostor syndrome, newer research shows that men actually suffer from it more than women do. Even though men self-report lower levels of impostor syndrome than women, the level of impostor syndrome they actually experience is more due to gendered expectations that men are supposed to be confident and succeed. Men also tend to perceive female leaders in the workplace as a threat to their masculinity and are more willing to work with them if those women act deferential and downplay their authority.
Well-intentioned writers often urge women to be more confident, but this puts the onus on women when we should also be critiquing the social and institutional factors that cause women to doubt their success in the first place.
Fear as an Activator of Implicit Bias
Impostor syndrome and anxiety over one’s masculinity are both forms of fear, and fear may be one of the deeper reasons for the ongoing lack of trust in women’s leadership. It isn’t just that men have implicit biases about female leaders; they also feel actively threatened by those leaders. But why would a man feel threatened by a female leader, who supposedly lacks the qualities to lead, unless he was inwardly insecure about his own abilities while fearing that she might succeed? Such a scenario would invert gendered expectations, and that must be frightening indeed.
But why would a man feel threatened by a female leader, who supposedly lacks the qualities to lead, unless he was inwardly insecure about his own abilities while fearing that she might succeed?
One study provides some insight into the connection between fear and implicit bias. Researchers found that among White people with high levels of implicit racial bias, the implicit bias by itself didn’t necessarily translate into political opinions, in this case regarding voter ID laws that disproportionately affect Black voters. But when fear was triggered, the same White people were now 16% more likely to support those laws! The researchers concluded that fear “activates” implicit racial bias and causes it to affect public opinion. They also state, “we do not think our findings are limited to voter ID laws but can manifest in other racial domains as well.” If this is true for implicit racial bias, could it also be true for implicit gender bias? Could it be that the fear triggered by impostor syndrome and/or having a female boss can make unconscious gender bias translate into public opinion? It seems possible, given that implicit racial and gender biases intersect in ways that have real-world consequences.
Individuals as Agents of Change
The growing recognition of implicit bias has led to more companies offering implicit bias training and DEI training programs. While these are steps in the right direction, currently, such programs are generally not that effective. One of the reasons for this might be that they tend to point out the existence of implicit bias without digging into the deeper causes and the obstacles that stand in the way of solving it. This is why we can’t just rely on institutions to lead change. Individuals need to share the burden and responsibility by becoming agents of change, and there are a number of ways to do this. Four words to remember are acknowledge, ask, accept, and apply.
The biggest obstacle for doing these things, once again, is fear—fear of the discomfort that comes from realizing you might be part of the problem. Fear of the hard work needed for change. And fear, as suggested earlier, is what makes people default to their implicit biases and “activates” those biases. So it’s necessary to cultivate courage because courage makes it possible to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It makes it possible to do the acknowledging, asking, accepting, and applying that will slowly break down implicit bias and make true progress possible.
WRITTEN BYNicole Smith