Women in Tech

Overcoming the perception barrier

20th April 2021
Anna Flockett

There are many barriers and challenges when it comes to gender equality issues in business and technology, and we have highlighted many throughout this column. Electronic Specifier’s Anna Flockett delves deeper into the Reykjavik Index.

One such challenge that is growing rapidly is the battle for women in leadership positions, or more importantly, the lack of them. In recent years action has been taken to encourage more women into STEM, but a dearth of women in the higher leadership roles still exists.

However, an increase in equality and diversity within higher management levels, and in more senior positions, is needed in order to retain women in STEM-related industries. But also as role models and inspiration for the younger generation that will follow in their footsteps.

Research has shown that Fortune 500 companies that have the highest representation of women on their boards financially outperform those that don’t. Having a diverse board and women in leadership roles has been proven to bring more diverse skills to the table, different perspectives and structural and cultural differences, which ultimately drive effective solutions to the companies occupied by men.

Reykjavik Index

At a recent virtual event, Jane Bloomfield, Chief Growth Officer at Kantar UK, gave a presentation from the findings from the Reykjavik Index on the perception barrier and how we can overcome it.

The idea behind the Reykjavik Index came from Silvana Koch-Mehrin, Founder and President of Women Political Leaders (WPL), and Hanna Birna Kristjansdottir, Chair of the Board, who wanted women leaders from all continents to create significance and impact, as for example the World Economic Forum (WEF) does, but with a difference.

They were convinced that Iceland, as the best country to work as a woman (according to the WEF’s Global Gender Gap Report) would be the perfect location for a Reykjavík Global Forum - a conference, bringing together women leaders from all sectors: politics, business, tech, science, media etc. Having convened Women Political Leaders in Iceland in November 2017, the next step was obvious: make it a tradition. WPL with the Government and Parliament of Iceland have since annually co-hosted the multi-stakeholder Reykjavík Global Forum. The forum had its inaugural event in November 2018.

Reykjavik was chosen thanks to its strong women’s movement and social infrastructures including universal, affordable childcare and well-funded parental leave. Iceland has also topped the WEF Global Gender Gap Index for the past 11 years running.

What is the Reykjavik Index for leadership?

The Reykjavik Index for leadership is the first measure of perception of women and men for their suitability of leadership. Bloomfield explained: “There is currently is a lot of prejudice of women, and they do not seem to be regarded suitable for the leadership positions that their male counterparts are.”

Having started back in 2018, the goal for the Reykjavik Index for leadership is to get a target score of 100 when people are asked about leadership and gender.

The results for 2020 showed a striking absence of progress. Bloomfield added: “We can’t talk about it as progress and advancements of perception, when the numbers show none of this.”

Perceptions matter, as it is a big part of society, and essentially impacts the prejudice of women, and it impacts who we nominate to be in charge etc.

There has been an absence of progress in social attitudes towards equality for men and women since 2018. Since the index began measurements in 2018, there has been very little improvement in the way the G7 countries view men and women’s suitability to lead, indicated by the static G7 average Index score.

- 2020 – 73
- 2019 – 73
- 2018 – 72

Any score of less than 100 is an indication of prejudice in society, Bloomfield said: “We need to approach, scope and formulate the index score.”

How comfortable is society with women leaders?

The index measures the extent to which men and women are viewed in terms of the suitability for positions of leadership and it has been contrasted based on research exploring the essential question: ‘For each of the following sectors or industries, do you think men or women are better suited to leadership positions?’

The index scores are out of 100 – a score of 100 would indicate that across society there is complete agreement that men and women are equally suited to leadership in all sectors. Bloomfield said: “This is in an ideal world, and this end goal and would mean our work is done.”

The index asks a range of people who are more suited for leadership roles – men, women or both equally across 23 sectors. Each answer results in a point that counts towards that country’s score. Anything less than 100 is an indication of where women and men are not seen as equal to lead.

Overview of scores and results

The Reykjavik G7 average is 73. Interestingly, the UK and Canada came out on top with both countries scoring 81 points.

However, there is an absence of progress in social attitudes. Bloomfield said: “These results which continue to be the same, show very little improvement in society and we have not moved on. We are not seeing leaps forward in the attitudes of our societies across the G7.”

The parameters of the index are based on:
- In participation – in business and politics
- In the gender pay gap (UK)
- Equal access to opportunity

This lack of progress does not exist in a vacuum, but is combined with the unfolding impacts of COVID-19 that have, and may continue to exacerbate inequality:

  • Unequal access to economic activity.
  • Increase of women participating in unpaid labour - more likely to have left the workplace to take care of children and loved ones.
  • Increased violence against women and girls.
  • Risk of ‘retraditionalisation’ of attitudes as a result of the social and economic changes.

The effects of 2020 will be disproportionately felt by women, and the consequence of the pandemic may threaten to push women back into traditional roles they occupied in years gone by and the home. Bloomfield said: “More women are reshaping their lives and jobs due to the pandemic, which means we may see an increase in the pay gap.”

Dissonance between men and women endures

The index is higher for women in every country measured, which means that women are more likely to perceive men and women as being equally suitable for leadership roles. Women and men are both complicit in prejudice but not equally. This becomes more pronounced when discussing different age groups.

Young men demonstrate significantly less progressive views than young women. In fact, the young men in the G7 show the lowest index score of any cohort – 67 compared to 76 for their female peers, and a score of 71 for the men in the next age group above (35-54).

Young men (ages 18-34) in Italy and Germany in particular, have index scores significantly lower than their female peers.
- Italian men scored 61 vs Italian women (77).
- German men scored 57 vs German women (68).

In the same age bracket, in the US there is an eight-point gap between women (79) and men (71). Similarly, in the UK there is an eight-point gap, where women scored 80 and men 72. These lower scores from young men suggest than without any serious action, over time we will see further regression, as these men get older they will likely carry their prejudice with them.

Optimism

The UK brings optimism for the report as it holds the highest index scores in the G7 for 11 sectors, including banking and finance, pharmaceutical and medical research, foreign affairs and diplomacy and education.

The three notably higher than average scores for the UK comes across the three sectors:
- Defence and police
- Fashion and beauty
- Automotive manufacturers

The index also shows that 69% of people in the UK would feel very comfortable as having a woman as head of government – definitely a number to be worked on, but a lot higher than a large number of other countries. It also showed than 68% of people in the UK would feel comfortable with a woman being the CEO of a major company in their country.

Bloomfield also explained that in the UK, a woman earns 83p for every £1 a man earns. “Women have faced the brunt of COVID-19 - as they have twice the workload, fulfilling most of the home-schooling duties, and it has also been shown that women are more predominant in sectors that have been hit hardest by the pandemic - retail and hospitality.”

Inequality is still there, but these the numbers for the UK can be taken as a positive. There is also a high level of optimism for economics, political science, banking and finance, as research from the index indicates that the presence of women in leading roles in banking and finance is associated with greater bank stability, reduced conflict and greater focus on transparency and ethics. “Adding just one more woman in a firm’s senior management or corporate board is associated with between eight and 13 basis points,” reported IMF’s Deputy Managing Director Antoinette Sayeh.

So where does that leave us?

Perceptions matter because they manifest in deepening inequalities in every aspect of society. It leads to further prejudice in educational choices - opportunities that are not offered to girl can impact their earning potential and access to basic livelihood. It is something that we need to change.

As we move through 2021 there is a chance the situation can worsen. Obviously the impacts of COVID has affected and touched every aspect of our lives. We need to stay focused on embedding progress and change for women across all aspects of society and life, especially in leadership. Especially given the disproportionate impact on women effects of COVID on women.

Bloomfield finished by saying: “We need to establish and quantify these levels of comfort in society with the prospect of female leadership. Facing up to that gap, and the enormous scale of this task is daunting and challenging so we all need to take part.”

The Reykjavik Index for leadership is just one step in the right direction, and whilst it is important that we support these initiatives, they also need to be a catalyst for change, rather than a tool that merely points us in the right direction. This is not only important for society now, but for future generations. Diverse leadership benefits both women and men and the societies we live in today.

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