Mind the gap

Continuing gender bias in leadership roles undermines us all, says Mary Ann Sieghart

men facing stairs and women facing a stumbling block

Imagine this. Theresa May was never toppled, and Boris Johnson is still making trouble on the backbenches. May has finally extricated Britain from the EU but, more importantly for these purposes, she is prime minister in the time of Covid. Do you think she would have missed the first five Cobra meetings at the start of the pandemic? Can you envisage her blithely shaking hands with coronavirus patients and then boasting about it? Would she have delayed putting India on the red list because she wanted to sign a trade deal?

Would the UK have ended up with one of the highest death rates in Europe?

I very much doubt it, and I’m not even a fan of hers. I don’t think she was a good prime minister. But she was at least diligent, conscientious, cautious and thoughtful, none of which traits belong to the current incumbent, but all of which have been exemplified by the best leaders in this pandemic. Think of Jacinda Ardern or Angela Merkel, and compare their record with Johnson, Trump, Bolsonaro, Putin, Modi and Erdoğan.

Then we have the brilliant Kate Bingham, briskly (and for no pay) putting together a vaccine strategy that was one of the best and fastest in the world. And Sarah Gilbert, of Oxford University, working day and night to invent a cheap and effective vaccine to be offered at cost price to poorer countries.

It’s true that Dido Harding’s test and trace system has not been a storming success, but I wouldn’t want to claim that all women are better leaders than all men; only that women are clearly their equal and, on occasions that call for calm, rational and ego-less decision-making, are miles more effective than a particular type of risk-taking, swaggering, egocentric man. These are the men, unfortunately, who often end up leading us.

Globally, women hold only seven per cent of government leadership positions, yet four of the top ten countries which dealt best with Covid-19 are led by a woman. Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times looked at death rates in thirteen countries led by men and eight led by women after the first few months of the pandemic. The male-led ones had an average of 214 coronavirus deaths per million; the female-led ones had only 36 per million.

As he wrote: “It’s not that the leaders who best managed the virus were all women. But those who bungled the response were all men, and mostly a particular type: authoritarian, vainglorious and blustering. Virtually every country that has experienced coronavirus mortality at a rate of more than 150 per million inhabitants is male-led.”

The psychologist Tomas Chamurro-Premuzic has written a whole book about this phenomenon. He says: “Arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent – the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas in order to work for the common interest of the group.” So, as a result, “The paradoxical implication is that the same psychological characteristics that enable male managers to rise to the top of the corporate or political ladder are actually responsible for their downfall. In other words, what it takes to get the job is not just different from, but also the reverse of, what it takes to do the job well.”

So these men rise to the top and govern badly, while Hillary Clinton and the clutch of other female contenders for the Democratic nomination in 2019 can’t get themselves elected. When May’s position was looking precarious, a young male MP said to Amber Rudd, then Work and Pensions Secretary: “Just so you know, Amber, if there were a leadership contest, I would want to back you. But I think we’ve had enough women for now!” Can you imagine David Cameron being told “I think we’ve had enough men for now” after Michael Howard stepped down as Tory leader?

So why does this still happen? The fundamental problem is that we are still more reluctant to accord authority to women than to men, however good they are, a phenomenon I explore in my new book, The Authority Gap.

The Reykjavik Index for Leadership measures how suited people think men and women are for leadership in different spheres. A score of 100 means absolute equality, and any score less than that is a sign of prejudice against women. The current average score for the G7 countries is just 73, with no improvement over the past three years. Depressingly, young men are the least progressive, with a score of 67, nine points below their female peers and four points behind older men.

This is not just terrible news for women who want to be treated equally. It’s terrible news for the world, which could benefit so much from more Kate Binghams and Jacinda Arderns at the top. Sadly, it looks as if we can’t just idly wait for this bias to wash out in future generations. When I started researching this book, I assumed that younger people would be less sexist, and that all I needed to do was hurry the process along. But then I found female students telling me that their male friends didn’t treat them as intellectual equals – pretty bizarre when you see girls and young women outperforming boys and men at all academic levels, from GCSEs to Masters.

One study I cite in the book asked biology students who was the smartest and best-informed in their class. Male students consistently rated other male students as cleverer than better-performing female ones. This male bias increased over the course of the term and persisted even after controlling for class performance and outspokenness. The women, meanwhile, rated other students accurately.

We think that we’ve made great strides towards gender equality, and in some ways we have. There are many more women in top jobs than there were a decade or two ago. But in our everyday interactions, this bias continues, and women constantly find themselves being manderestimated and mandermined. They are twice as likely as men to say that they have to prove their competence. They are much more likely than men to be interrupted, talked over, patronised and have their views ignored. And each of these slights, though they may seem minor irritations at the time, roll up over the course of a working life like compound interest to create a wide gap between women’s and men’s promotion chances. That’s one of the main reasons why we have so many fewer women than men in charge.

This behaviour, which stems from the authority gap, is measurable, and it happens however senior a woman is. For instance, women make up a third of all US Supreme Court justices but suffer two-thirds of all interruptions. In other words, they are four times more likely to be interrupted, 96 per cent of the time by men.

Another study looked at the phenomenon so familiar to women: you make a point, only for it to be ignored by the rest of the group, then a man makes exactly the same point and is applauded for his brilliance. The researchers put together a mixed-sex group, supposedly to decide a child custody case. Some of the relevant information was given to all the members, but other pieces were given to just one. When that information was offered to the group by a man, it was six times more likely to be used in the group’s deliberations than when the same piece of information was offered by a woman. Of course, this may seem theoretical in a research study. But what if that single piece of information, offered by a woman, had been the necessity of a mask mandate in a pandemic?

Until we start to recognise this bias in ourselves, the authority gap is never going to narrow. But we need it to narrow if we want our businesses, our societies and our countries to be better led. We need to recognise women’s abilities as readily as we recognise men’s, indeed to celebrate them. If this dreadful pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we can’t trust the running of the country – or the planet – to only one half of the population.

Mary Ann Sieghart is a journalist, broadcaster and Visiting Professor at King’s College, London. “The Authority Gap” is published by Doubleday, £16.99

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