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Despite more women leaders, society thinks men are more suitable in leadership roles, study finds

Panel on social prejudice and leadership
Panel on social prejudice and leadership 31:10

A new study conducted by Women Political Leaders and Kantar, the creators of The Reykjavik Index for Leadership, shows inequality persists in how society views leadership. The study found that despite global movements calling for greater equality, society has not become more progressive over the past year in its attitudes towards women leaders. 

The research was conducted in the G7 countries — the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom — as well as India, Kenya and Nigeria.

The Reykjavik Index ranks 23 sectors, such as health care, media and entertainment, banking, and the tech industry, for the extent to which society is comfortable with women in leadership positions as compared to men.

The Index asked 2,000 working-age adults, "For each of the following sectors or industries, do you think men or women are better suited to leadership positions?" Respondents could choose men, women or both. 

A score of 100 would mean full agreement that men and women are equally suited to leadership. Any score of less than 100 "indicates prejudice," the Index explains. 

Sectors like media and entertainment (with a score of 81), natural sciences (also 81), and banking and finance (80) scored the highest, meaning women were largely — though not universally — seen as suitable leaders in these areas.

But despite ranking near the top, banking and finance leadership remains heavily male. According to the Index, women account for less than 2% of bank CEOs and hold just 20% of board seats in banks and supervision agencies.

Next in the rankings came the judiciary (with a score of 79), high-tech and AI (78), and aerospace and engineering (both 72). The health care sector landed in 18th place, with an overall score of 71, despite the fact that three-quarters of the workforce in this sector is female, according to the Index. 

The study found that the U.K. and Canada had the most progressive views, with overall scores of 81. 

The U.S. had a score of 76, up one point from last year. 

Overall, the G7 countries' average score was 73, the same as last year. Scores in Germany, France and Japan each declined several points from 2019 to 2020.

The study found a gender gap, with women's views toward women leaders tending to be more favorable than men's. Older women (ages 55-65) scored the highest, at 79, while young men (ages 18-34) scored the lowest, at 67.

"Younger people overall are less progressive in their views," the report says.

The survey also asked respondents how comfortable they would feel with a woman holding some of the highest positions of power within a country, such as head of government or as CEO of a major national company. 

In the United States, 69% said they'd be comfortable with a woman as CEO but fewer — 62% — were comfortable with a woman as head of government. 

The survey was taken before Senator Kamala Harris became the first woman elected to the office of vice president of the United States. 

Michelle Harrison, Global CEO of Kantar's Public Division, said it is the third year this study has been conducted and "it is striking to see the absence of progress."

"2020 has been a year of significant social turbulence. We are committed to providing the evidence to better understand where progress towards equality is taking place, and as we have seen this year, where it is not," Harrison said in the study. "Evidence is an essential tool to assess where public and private sector policy and interventions can have impact."

The results of the Reykjavík Index for Leadership were presented at the Women Leaders Global Forum, which is being held virtually this year from November 9-11, 2020. Former secretary of state and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke at the event Monday.

Fireside chat with Hillary Clinton and Melanne Verveer 16:47

Several women leaders have been praised this year for their handling of the global COVID-19 pandemic, with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern winning her second term  by a landslide after effectively ridding the country of the virus. Taiwan, lead by President Tsai Ing-wen, was also praised by experts as "a great example of how to deal with the coronavirus."

In addition to Kamala Harris' historic victory, U.S. voters also elected a record number of women to serve in the U.S. Congress next year, with at least 129 winning seats on Election Day.

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