Recent Harvard Study Finds Implicit and Explicit Leadership Biases Against Girls

Posted By Terri Williams on March 28, 2016 at 10:15 am
Recent Harvard Study Finds Implicit and Explicit Leadership Biases Against Girls

“Our research suggests that the teen girls who are key to closing the gender gap appear to face an age-old and powerful barrier: gender bias, and specifically biases about their leadership.” This quote, from the Making Caring Common Project sponsored by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, summarizes extensive research on the implicit and explicit biases facing the next generation of female leaders.

Harvard’s recently released report, “Leaning Out: Teen Girls and Leadership Biases,” contains the results of various surveys, informal interviews, and focus groups. Respondents were asked such questions as, “Do you think males or females would be better leaders?” in various professions, including business, healthcare, and politics.

The largest survey included over 17,000 U.S. students and over 2,800 international middle- and high-school students – and their parents. They were asked if they were more or less likely to increase the power given to their student council based on the leader’s gender.

Respondents could choose males, females, or no gender preference.

  • 40% of teen boys preferred male over female political leaders
  • 23% of teen girls preferred male over female political leaders
  • 36% of boys preferred male over female business leaders
  • Girls responded evenly between female business leaders and no gender preference
  • Approximately 50% of both boys and girls preferred females in leadership in traditionally female roles (child care director, arts program director)
  • 59% of boys prefer a male to lead their student council
  • Girls reported no statistical difference
  • Mothers were more likely to support student councils led by males than females (the sample of fathers was too small to provide conclusive data)

Interestingly, the report also reveals that girls were more likely to think that girls were better leaders. They also thought they were as smart as boys, and they were as likely as boys to think they would grow up to be good leaders – which makes their comments more puzzling. When asked to explain their biases against other girls, some of the responses include the following:

  • A few of the girls stated that many girls have low self-esteem and may project this on other girls as well. One respondent said, “Girls wouldn’t vote for themselves, so why should they vote for another girl?”
  • Other girls talked about competitiveness. Another female student said, “I’m determined to beat other girls.”
  • Some girls felt that girls were too “dramatic” to be good leaders.
  • Some girls stated that “girls don’t trust each other.”

Preventing and reducing gender bias

So, how can students, teachers, parents, and society change these assumptions? The first step in dealing with this problem is to acknowledge that biases exist and admit that we all have them, according to Steve Schroeder, assistant dean of the Wisconsin BBA Program at the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The fact is, many people in leadership positions in our society are male – and this includes all of our U.S. Presidents, 80.6% of Congress, and 90.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs.”

And Schroeder notes that extensive studies have been conducted on the pay gap, which reveals that, on average, men make more money than women for doing the same job. “We need to have more conversation about these discrepancies and take it from a mostly unconscious bias to one that is conscious, because we cannot change what we are unaware of,” says Schroeder.

Dr. Linda Henman, founder and owner of Henman Performance Group, has worked with executives and boards in Fortune 500 companies, and has also written several leadership books. As a mother, she felt it was important to send her daughters to all-girl schools. “In these schools, all the athletes, officers of the class, and leaders of the school, are girls – and the girls develop the perception that there’s nothing women can’t do, which carries them into college and into the work force.”

Henman also believes that girls in this type of environment receive a higher caliber of education, and as a result, are not intimidated by STEM classes when they get to college.

“I also think that an all-girls school teaches the girls grit: Girls who can make it in an all girls environment with high academic and athletic standards KNOW they can make it anywhere – they refuse to see themselves as victims of any bias, so for the most part, they never are.”

Harvard also lists various resources and programs designed to empower girls and promote equality:

Girls, Inc. Ban Bossy
Girls Leadership The Representation Project
Girls Write Now Girl Scout
Lean In Girls on the Run
Hardy Girls Healthy Women True Child
Girls for Gender Equality A Mighty Girl
Spark Movement New Moon Media
Teach a Girl to Lead PBS Parenting
Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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