I keep toggling between horrified disbelief and hysterical laughter. It’s funny in how sad things can be funny.
Researchers asked 1,000 American consumers to name a famous woman in tech. Only 4% could do so. And of those?…1/4 named ‘Alexa’ and ‘Siri.’
This, of course, is the headline that has me laughing and weeping concurrently, but the real tragedy was that only 4% of American consumers (minus those who mentioned a virtual technical assistant) accurately named an in-the-flesh famous female tech leader. Almost 60% could name a male.
Well, my daughter couldn’t name a female tech leader either. She rattled off Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs (“that guy in the turtleneck who died”) without batting an eye but drew a blank on a female.
At least she didn’t say “Siri.”
I realize there aren’t as many female tech leaders out there as men, but to not be able to name at least one is stunning. These aren’t small companies or meek women: Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, Hewlett Packard’s CEO Meg Whitman, YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojcicki, IBM’s CEO Ginni Rometty, and Co-CEO of Oracle, Safra Catz (the highest paid female CEO).
Perhaps these women don’t crow about their accomplishments like the men, but they certainly aren’t silent. Sheryl Sandberg has written two books, one of which coined the phrase Lean In, delivered a famous Ted Talk, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times. What else does she need to do?!
You may say this is tech, and it’s known we have a lack of women leaders. We should be forgiven.
OK. I’ll give you that.
The issue might not be so much about recognition of those women who sit at the top of tech, but the more significant problem of a shortage of female leaders overall.
Even in female-dominated industries like education, there is a gender imbalance at the top. Women outnumber men at every level of the K-12 career ladder (76.2% female) except the superintendent’s office (23.7%). We see the same issues at the college and university level. These higher institutions of learning have been increasingly favorable to women, and yet research by the American Council on Education found that only 27% of deans and 26% of university presidents are women.
Forget about recalling names, what keeps me up at night is the bigger question: How can you recognize female leadership if you aren’t exposed to it? Worse, how can my daughter be one if she can’t see one?
Research bears this out. Tina Kiefer, a professor at the University of Warwick in the UK who studies organizational behavior, accidentally discovered leadership bias during her workshops when she asked her groups to “Draw an effective leader.” She intended to get at the heart of what makes great leadership. Instead, she noticed a disturbing commonality amongst the pictures.
They were almost always male. Even with a rare gender-neutral image, when the groups presented their pictures, they used the word “he.”
Other organizational psychology researchers investigated further to see if this suggested it would be harder to identify emerging female leaders in the workplace. The experiment was simple. They had actors perform a skit of a team meeting while research subjects watched. Then they did it again with a different set of judges. The two skits used identical scripts except the ‘leader’ switched from a man to a woman. They then asked the observers to name the leader. The research subjects identified the male far more often than the female leader even though their scripts were exactly the same. Their results confirm “getting noticed as a leader in the workplace is more difficult for women than for men."
It’s an interesting premise: since people aren’t exposed to many female leaders, it makes it tougher to recognize what a female leader looks like. Not only do we not recognize those amazing women who hold C-Suite offices but it becomes a vicious circle. We don’t recognize emerging female leadership, so we don’t promote women to higher levels. If they aren’t promoted, we don’t get comfortable seeing female leaders.
As Yoda would say, “Break the cycle, we must.”
Speaking of Hollywood, since the Weinstein scandal broke, there has been a glaring spotlight on the extreme gender imbalance in Hollywood. The movie industry isn’t Silicon Valley, but it is an indicator measurement much like a canary in a coal mine.
According to a study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, the canary is on life support. They found that in over 25 years of films winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, only 29.2% of 5,554 speaking characters were female — the same 3 to 1 male/female ratio that existed in 1946.
We see a concerted effort to rectify the situation. This year, women will direct 32% of broadcast TV pilots in 2018-19, a big step forward from last year's pilot season (8.5%).
It isn’t just the movie industry that is making a concerted effort in increasing the number of women in the leadership pipeline.
The ‘unheard of’ CEO of YouTube, Susan Wojcicki, has been outspoken about the gender gap in Silicon Valley. Since she took over YouTube in 2014, she has increased the number of female employees there from 24% to 30%. Over that same period, the number of women working at its parent company, Google, has grown from 1% to 31%.
I’m hopeful more females in all industries will expose both men and women to what female leadership looks like. This ‘education’ can only help to identify more emerging female leaders which will expose my daughter to female leader role models.
Our household talks a lot about female leadership and leaders due to this blog, so I decided to channel Professor Kiefer. I asked both my son and my daughter to “Draw a leader.” I breathed a sigh of relief when my daughter handed me a picture of Rosa Parks. I was equally pleased when my son handed me a gender-neutral image.
Although, when I asked him to describe his image, he used the word “he.”
You know what? I’m OK with that. He needs to see himself as a leader too.