More women than ever before are running the world’s biggest companies, but research shows that the rise in representation has been accompanied by a fall in trust in female leaders. It paints a grim picture for those who manage to break through the metaphorical glass ceiling.
In November, new data from The Reykjavik Index for Leadership, an annual survey that compares how men and women are viewed in terms of their suitability for positions of power, showed trust in women leaders has fallen markedly throughout the past year. It’s the first decline in this measure since Kantar Public, an evidence and advisory public-policy business, started collecting data in 2018.
Across the G7 nations, which include Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US, fewer than half of respondents (47%) said they were “‘very comfortable” having a woman as CEO of a major company in their country, down from 54% a year earlier. Men were significantly more likely than women to be critical of a female leader, and one in 10 respondents said that they would explicitly not be comfortable with a female CEO.
Responses to questions about female political leaders followed a similar pattern: just 45% of those questioned in the G7 said they were “very comfortable” with a woman at the head of their government, down from 52% in 2021.
Though many people are disheartened, academics and experts on leadership and gender are generally not surprised by the research findings, and have different theories on why trust in women leaders has declined. They all warn, however, that fixing the trust gap is critical to eradicating bias that permeates every level of companies and institutions.
Traditional status quo
Explanations for diminishing trust in female CEOs vary, but many follow common themes. Some experts argue that institutional misogyny and gender bias has been supercharged by both the recent political landscape and the pandemic.
Danna Greenberg, a professor of organisational behaviour at Babson College in Massachusetts, US, believes women leaving the paid labour market and picking up the bulk of childcare and other domestic chores during Covid-19 resulted in a “hardening of old traditional assumptions” about the role of women at work and in the home. This, Greenberg believes, has had a knock-on effect, making “bias against women more socially acceptable”.