If Hillary Clinton wins the US presidential election in November, three of the world’s five largest economies will be led by women. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, Theresa May, UK prime minister, and Mrs Clinton, have all been hailed as role models for women and girls. But the singularity and precariousness of their success raises the question: are women automatically good examples for other women?
“The ability of role models, in portraits and more importantly in the flesh, to influence gender inequality is both encouraging and muddy,” says Iris Bohnet, professor of public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.
Some evidence on the power of role models is overwhelmingly positive. Ms Bohnet cites the Panchayati Raj act, a constitutional amendment in India introduced in 1993, which stipulated that village councils needed to reserve one-third of their seats, and one-third of their council leader positions, for women. Not only did the share of Indian local government posts held by women rise from 5 per cent in 1993 to 40 per cent by 2005, but the new role models the law created had a dramatic impact on families and younger women.
With the advent of female village leaders, the likelihood that a woman spoke up in a village meeting increased by 25 per cent. Villagers who had been exposed to at least two female chiefs in West Bengal overcame their initial bias against women as leaders and rated male and female leaders equally. This category of converts included parents, who were more likely to want their daughters to study past secondary school, thus eliminating the gender gap in aspirations. The Indian legislation, writes Ms Bohnet in her book What Works: Gender Equality by Design, showed that “the act of seeing women lead increased women’s self-confidence and their willingness to compete in male-dominated domains, and it changed men’s and women’s beliefs about what an effective leader looked like”.
Number of women leading Fortune 500 companies
There is plenty of evidence from elsewhere in the world on the effectiveness of female role models. In the US, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission analysed data from more than 20,000 private-sector companies and found that, when the share of female top managers increased, the share of women in middle-management subsequently rose.
The US research contains some less good news, though. It found that the positive influence of women in top leadership positions on gender diversity at management level diminished over time, suggesting that women at the top play a positive yet transitory role in women’s career advancement.
Richie Zweigenhaft, a professor of psychology at Guilford College in North Carolina, provides one possible explanation for this in his recent book on female and ethnic minority chief executives at Fortune 500 companies. He suggests that the existence of a few trailblazers has allowed companies and political parties to become lazier in promoting women.
One of the “ironic effects” of the past rise in numbers of women at the top, Prof Zweigenhaft argues, may be that the “heyday of diversity has come and gone”. His study found that the number of white women, African-Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans appointed as the chief executives of Fortune 500 companies declined sharply in 2015. Now that a few women have made it to the top, there appears to be less, not more, pressure on boards to appoint them.
Such a development is itself open to alternative explanations. There are just 21 women at the helm of Fortune 500 companies, meaning that even one fewer female chief executive constitutes a large percentage swing. In addition, the fact that women make up just 4 per cent of chief executives may not constitute enough of a “critical mass” for less senior women to aspire to.
Indeed, having a small number of highly successful women at the top can prove a double-edged sword. Anecdotal evidence suggests that if the women in leadership posts are overwhelmingly white, highly educated — and often childless — this can deter other women who do not fit these categories.
Number of female CEOs at the helm of FTSE 100 companies in UK
The experience of much-written-about “superwomen”, such as fund managers Nicola Horlick and Helena Morrissey in the UK, or Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook in the US, can sometimes discourage as much as encourage those attempting to imitate their success.
Brenda Trenowden, chair of the 30% Club, which campaigns globally to increase female representation at senior corporate levels, acknowledges the problem. But she also proposes a solution, suggesting that more senior women need to be encouraged “to talk authentically and frankly, warts and all” about their rise to top positions. There is no “normal” for how to go about engineering success or what that might even look like; nor is there is one “correct” model for getting to the top “and that needs to be visibly and candidly reflected in society,” she says.
Deborah Gillis, president of Catalyst, which campaigns to improve gender diversity at work, argues that the presence of more women in senior positions helps to break down the “think-leader-think-male” mindset. Ms Gillis points out that women such as Ms Merkel and Mrs Clinton often face “biting” judgments about their gender, experience, likeability and their appearance. Men who run for office or rise to lead companies are largely free from such criticism and benefit from long-held advantages in politics, business and society as a whole. A critical mass of women at the top should slowly change that.
Get alerts on Leadership when a new story is published