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Many of the men in power today grew up in a time when a woman’s only place was in the home. Research shows we’re still carrying around those gender stereotypes. Could the highest of glass ceilings be propped up by antiquated perceptions?


By Teresa Harris



Over 3,000 world leaders descended upon the town of Davos, Switzerland in January for 2017’s World Economic Forum. This year, the theme was “Responsive and Responsible Leadership,” which makes sense, given the ways in which the world’s superpowers have been engaging with one another lately.

Out of the 3,000 attendees, 21% were women. While a hopeful increase from 18% in 2016, and a massive leap from 2001’s abysmal 9% — in large part due to WEF’s implemented gender quotas — considering women represent roughly 50% of the population, it’s not enough.

So we couldn’t help but consider: how are discussions on Responsive and Responsible Leadership extending beyond the superficial to include considerations on the people we’re selecting — and not selecting — for leadership positions?


“How are discussions on Responsive and Responsible Leadership extending beyond the superficial to include considerations on the people we’re selecting — and not selecting — for leadership positions?”


Currently, women make up 48% of Canada’s labour force. And yet, only 16% of board of director seats are held by women, and fewer than 5% have reached the C-suite. The 2016 Fortune 500 list reveals that just 21 of these top-tier companies are run by women — and that number has gone down, settling in at just 4.2% versus last year’s 4.8%. UN Women reports that only 22.8 % of all national parliamentarians were women as of June 2016, and as of January 2017, just 9 women out of 196 countries are serving as Head of Government.

So the question is: why are women so poorly represented at the highest levels of power? Research shows that it might be less about access, and more about perception.

Let’s remember that just 50 years ago, a woman’s primary title was “stay at home wife and mom.” Considering the average age of WEF’s attendees is a little over 50, it’s safe to assume that many of the world’s most powerful men were raised in a time when women were simply not at the helm of business, economics, and politics. And while there were new initiatives being developed to support women’s advancement, most proponents of these initiatives were clear about what should remain a priority in women’s lives.

In a 1961 televised conversation with Eleanor Roosevelt, newly appointed chairwoman of the Commission on the Status of Women, US President John F. Kennedy stated, “We want to be sure that women are used effectively as they can to provide a better life for our people, in addition to meeting their primary responsibility, which is in the home.”

Given the climate of women’s rights at the time, this is an unsurprising ethos. Alongside the decade’s limiting social views of a woman’s role, many structures were in place that inhibited women from gaining any real sense of economic and political power. In America, it is only in the last fifty years that women have been granted the right to get a credit card without their husband’s cosign, serve on a jury, and receive an Ivy League education.

In Canada, it has only been in the last century that women nation-wide have been granted the right to vote, own property, and join law enforcement, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that Canadian universities enrolled at least 50% women. Examples like these prove that for a long time women had been excluded from the game at the most rudimentary level, so it’s unsurprising that the byproducts are corporate and political ecosystems that inherently favour men.

We’ve come a long way since the 1960s; and yet, society still has a tendency to hold women accountable to traditional gender-role stereotypes, expecting them to embody maternal, “feminine” characteristics, such as being caring, warm, compassionate, nurturing and sensitive.

Men on the other hand are held to standards of independence, assertiveness, ambition, and self-confidence. This serves them well in today’s business climate, which is propped atop decades of bold risk-taking and a fend-for-oneself mentality.

This leaves women in a bind — if we adopt our expected gender role, we remove ourselves from the leadership running. When we digress, we’re pegged as abrasive, hostile, and unlikeable. For example: researchers Victoria L. Brescoll and Eric Luis Uhlmann found that when men express anger in the workplace, it is seen as an appropriate response to the situation. Angry women on the other hand are viewed as just that — angry women.


“When men express anger in the workplace, it is seen as an appropriate response to the situation. Angry women on the other hand are viewed as just that — angry women.”


And these limiting perceptions aren’t only held by men. A Unilever study revealed that when it comes to leading high-stakes projects, 77% of men believe that they are the best choice. Surprisingly, 55% of women feel the same way, signaling the power social conditioning has in shaping how women perceive their own potential.


Even men who were once our allies in the workplace can experience a change in perception — particularly if they marry women who don’t work. One study by Sreedhari D. Desai and colleagues discovered that men married to non-working women eventually begin to perceive their female co-workers as less qualified, and the organizations that employ them as underperformers.

Which is simply not true. Studies show women are better communicators, as well as more charismatic, democratic, and participative than their male counterparts, qualities associated with effective leadership and proven to foster stronger teams, elevated performance, and increased company value.

Unfortunately, although research exists to support the promotion of female leaders, and the current state of international relations is calling for leaders to adopt qualities women are known to possess, there are still structural and social barriers within the workplace that limit women’s opportunities to rise in the ranks.

Since structural barriers have a way of influencing social perception, the end result is a labyrinth of challenges ambitious women are forced to navigate. In order for women to make their way on even ground with men, it is crucial that companies adjust their policies and illuminate the ambiguous practices and performance benchmarks that influence advancement.

The WEF 2017 mandate suggested that in order to navigate the politically tenuous and uncertain environment we exist in, “we need responsible world leaders that are open to communication.” Seems like a job for a woman, no?

Among the female leaders who did participate at the WEF were Ruth Porat, CFO of Alphabet, and General Motors CEO Mary Barra.

“Women’s aversion to rejection manifests itself in the job market,” said Barra, confirming the idea that women are less likely than men are to apply for jobs they’re not at least 90% qualified for.

Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, both in attendance, agreed — gender norms are keeping women out of tech, and out of leadership.

“I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how important stereotypes are,” Sandberg emphasized, calling them out as “at the root of the gender gap we face.” When women are told they’re ‘bossy’ rather than ‘assertive,’ or ‘cold’ over ‘professional,’ it creates a chasm between the way women want to be perceived, and the way leaders need to be perceived.

Political leaders in attendance included Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, representing a small portion of the 22.8% of female state leaders worldwide.

And while out of 400 sessions more than half addressed issues of gender diversity and inclusion, we can’t help but feel that those discussions will lack substantive influence until at least half of those at the table are women and minorities. It’s a step in the right direction — but it’s about time we took a leap.