CEO Barbie: Perception of Women in Leadership Differs from the Reality

Research shows people think women make fine leaders, but why are women CEOs still so few in number?

By Michael Nam


Research shows most men and women see little difference in the leadership capabilities of women while acknowledging greater obstacles for women achieving those roles, but the number of women in CEO posts for top corporations remains woefully low.

The Pew Research Center found that people saw little difference in leadership traits between men and women with the majority stating that the two genders were equal in terms of innovation, intelligence, ambition and decisiveness. Some differences in perception were found in qualities such as compassion, honesty and risk-taking, but often favoring women.

The disparity between these results and the fact that there are only 23 women CEOs (4.6 percent) in the S&P 500, a slightly worse percentage on the Fortune 500 (4.8 percent) seems alarmingly puzzling, but the way Internet search engines return results that reflect and reinforce biases toward traditional gender roles might provide some evidence for what makes the reality differ so much from the perception.

Comparatively, women currently lead Novartis Pharmaceutical Corporation, Deloitte and IBM, all on the 2014 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity List. The boards and senior management of companies on the DiversityInc Top 50 list also feature more women than comparable companies in the U.S., showing commitment to investing in talent pipelines that would increase the probabilities of women in top leadership positions down the road.

Drilling deeper into this discrepancy in corporate women leaders, a University of Washington study into biases regarding occupations through the Google image search engine showed some interesting results.

  •  Gender proportions for many fields had a slight exaggeration according to stereotypes. Images for male-dominated jobs had even more men in results than real-world proportions. People preferred images with genders matching the occupational stereotype.

  •  Results showed a slight under-representation of women in the number of images disproportionate to the actual higher number of women in those fields in general. For example, an occupation with 50 percent would have about 45 percent women in search results.

  •  The closer the image results were to matching stereotypes, the more professional or appropriate-looking the image subject appeared.

  •  People's perception of real-world gender proportions of occupations tended to be accurate, but the study also found that manipulating search results could have an effect on influencing their estimates.

Based on this information, a search into CEO images in Google revealed a rather stark example of these biases. The Verge discovered that the first "woman CEO" returned in results was an image of a CEO Barbie doll.  Additionally, doing a gendered search such as "women CEO" or "female CEO" returned suggested categories such as:

•  Outfit

•  Attire

•  Glasses

•  Successful Business Woman Profile

•  Business Woman Silhouette

From the Pew findings, most people do seem to recognize on a conscious level that women face some unfair, gender-biased obstacles in reaching the topmost leadership positions. It is research like the one from the University of Washington that shows how unconscious, systemic bias likely affects even those people's real-world behavior towards women as leaders.

As has been shown particularly in STEM fields, many biases based on gender and race are largely unseen and dismissed, most probably by those who would even agree that such behaviors and attitudes are problems. The studies suggest that people in general, and businesses in particular, need to be aware of how these biases subtly influence what's behind the underrepresentation of women in the C-suite.

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