Since 1981, over 50% of all Bachelor’s degrees conferred in the US have been to women. In fact, in 2021, they are expected to make up 58% of the graduating class. 1https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d20/tables/dt20_318.10.asp
In 1987, when my mother began her university applications, she had in her arsenal remarkably high grades across all her subjects. However, above all else, she had an unrivalled talent for mathematics. Yet, despite her clear distinctions, her teachers shepherded her towards a degree in language and literature, citing that it would be “easier” for a girl.
Throughout the decade that followed, she was continually told that her place was at a desk and behind a computer, scapegoating their decision on the basis of her academic major. It was not until the close of the millennium that she upended all expectations by starting her own multi-national organisation while single-handedly raising a child.
Her story is one of both the many and the few. Many have faced the same level of systematic discrimination in their lifetime, and few have successfully combated it.
This stark minority of female leaders is clear among the Fortune 500, where only 41 female CEOs can be found – representing just 8% of the total. This disparity is in spite of the clear majority of equally qualifiable candidates. The result of which has been part of a wider systemic issue that has continued to perpetuate gender inequality over the decades.
It has been known for a while that the solution towards gender equality can be found by normalising attitudes towards women in power and upending the traditional presumptive traits in leadership. Consequently, in recent years significant efforts have been placed in establishing more methodical efforts towards cultivating women for such positions in some of the most afflicted industries. However, such attempts do not solve the root issue at hand.
Many are tackling these issues at a superficial level. For example, few have applied the same level of attention towards cultivating junior female managers and even fewer in roles with profit-and-loss responsibilities. In a report by Equilar on Russell 3000 companies in 2019, only 10% of profit-and-loss roles were occupied by women. The majority of women in management are still concentrated in realms of human resources and administration.
So how do we resolve this?
One solution could be to replicate the efforts made by businesses but at an earlier stage – during education.
In a recent survey conducted by Bright Network, they highlighted that 46% of female undergraduates are more likely to be uncertain of their career path after university compared to their male peers. Simultaneously, they were 56% more likely to abandon an application due to a loss of confidence in their ability to get a role. This lack of confidence was reflected in a further statistic that saw men attaining higher average scores when asked to rate their own skills. Such figures point towards a wider societal issue where men and women have been nurtured in very different manners. 2https://d8qb5cxd9qhkd.cloudfront.net/files_live/public/bright_network_research_report_2018_-_what_do_graduates_want.pdf
In assessing the proposed solution at hand, it quickly becomes clear that it is not trivial. These investments towards establishing programs that promote female leadership could ultimately fall short of being superficial. The reason being that these programs do not normalise sentiments towards women in power and may risk invoking greater tensions down the line due to the perceived “special attention”. In a study conducted by Humanyze, they concluded that campaigns often “miss the big picture: Gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behaviour.” 3https://hbr.org/2017/10/a-study-used-sensors-to-show-that-men-and-women-are-treated-differently-at-work
At the university level, many institutions champion their female leaders, but that they do little to enact tangible change in attitude among the student body. One solution can be found in careers societies, student-run movements which are well-positioned to help shape the future demographics of industries. One such society, King’s Business Club has established a 51 to 49 female to male gender ratio in the past year through a meritocratic recruitment process. These committee members are provided with the opportunity to develop critical leadership experience alongside male peers. This inevitably results in the development of an environment that facilitates mutual respect and actively redefines attitudes towards women in power.
In the cases like my mother, she was lucky to have some semblance of a meritocratic upbringing where she often garnered confidence through academic brilliance. In light of this, educational institutions should focus on inspiring participation in an unbiased approach at all levels. They should seek to break down gender barriers from a young age and facilitate opportunities for them to collaborate and take charge on the basis of merit. By supporting all students we begin to ingrain an attitude of respect and semblance of cohesion between genders. In doing so, we hope to see a more gender-equal society in the coming decade.