It may seem like women are in more leadership positions than ever before in history, but one thing still remains true: the gender gap is still very real, and gender biases still exist across all gender and racial lines.
In a new research study conducted by the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, researchers have found that gender biases about specific leadership capabilities of women are still very much alive among today’s youth.
“We have Hillary Clinton as a major candidate in the presidential race, yet still nearly a quarter of all girls think boys would make better political leaders,” said Richard Weissbourd, co-director of Making Caring Common and faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Meanwhile, nearly all boys and girls think women make better child care directors. It says a lot about where we’re at as a society,”
The study found that 23 percent of teen girls preferred having male political leaders over female leaders, with only 8 percent saying they preferred female leaders over males, and with 69 percent reporting no preference. Among teenage boys, 40 percent preferred males over females in political leadership positions, with only 4 percent preferring females in these roles, and 56 percent citing no preference. Members of both genders also preferred females at a much higher rate in positions of power in traditionally female professions, like child care.
The study utilized surveys, focus groups, and informational interviews to better understand biases about gender and leadership. It was conducted in 59 middle and high schools and with 19,816 student participants, and asked students whether they thought males or females would make better leaders in professions including health care, business, politics, and child-care. The study also measured how much more or less power students would give their student council depending on the gender, race and ethnicity of leaders.
But the findings show girls aren’t just getting pressure from their male peers.
“We’re seeing bias from other girls, boys, moms, dads, educators, and the list goes on and on. We need to be intentional about helping eliminate these biases and attitudes about girls and help prepare them to become tomorrow’s leaders,” Weissbourd said.
In terms of leaders for school councils, students surveyed were most likely to support giving more power to councils that were headed by white males. In 59 percent of the schools surveyed, students were more likely to support a council headed by a white boy than one headed by a white girl.
Focus groups and interviews that the Making Caring Common team conducted were able to provide researchers with a variety of reasons for students’ biases against girls, including, “highly competitive feelings among girls, girls lacking confidence and self-esteem and projecting that lack of confidence onto other girls, and girls being viewed as too emotionally ‘dramatic.’”
Researchers feel that these biases against women are reinforced across all aspects of society, but especially in the media. “Girls are bombarded with negative images of women, and we never see as many images of women in leadership roles as we do with males,” Weissbourd said. “You still see mothers represented much more in the kitchen or other traditional female roles than you do with dads. This sort of representation is affecting girls across all lines, and the only way we can change it is by portraying males and females in an equal capacity.”
But daily life can also play a major factor in how boys and girls may perceive one another, especially with traditional gender roles at home. Weissbourd says that when we assign girls roles of babysitting and boys roles like taking out the trash and mowing the lawn, it only reinforces what children think boys and girls are capable of.
Moving forward, it’s going to take everyone to make a change in how we perceive girls in leadership positions. “We live in a time where girls are more universally educated than ever before, yet they still face biases like this,” Weissbourd said. “People get too complacent talking about this issue, but we all need to be able to talk about it, especially parents and educators.”
Along with the results of the findings, Weissbourd and the team of Researchers at MCC have provided recommendations in the study for parents and educators to reverse this trend and try to bring an end to gender discrimination. You can view them here.