On International Women’s Day we are prompted to both celebrate and reflect on progress in the area of gender equity. Considering women make up more than 50% of the population, the shockingly low representation of women in business, particularly leadership roles, is unconscionable.
As Head of Course Development at Ducere Global Business School and a former business school student, I am constantly uncovering subtle yet very important biases that can lead women to believe they don’t belong in business and the lofty ranks of senior leadership roles.
You can’t be what you cant see
Various schools of thought attempt to explain why we still see such inequality in business and governance. Women don’t ask, hiring biases exist, parenting responsibilities are unequal, the view of leadership needs to change, to name but a few. The topic I believe that is yet to receive the attention it deserves is that of female representation, or lack thereof, in business-focussed conversation, media and education. It is simply hard to be what you cannot see.
So many Sam’s, so few Sally’s
Women are rarely used in business cases or when discussing leaders. In one of my last electives of my MBA, I experienced a significant moment of realisation. We had been learning business concepts through Harvard Business Review cases dating back to the 1950’s, and on page 10 of case number 9, a woman’s name appeared. This was the first time in 9 weeks that I had read about a woman in a senior business role, worthy of mentioning in a case. So for 9 weeks, the class had been discussing and analysing actions and decision-making of only male leaders and executives.
Google images tell me I don’t belong
Women are almost entirely excluded from business imagery. Type in ‘leadership icon’ into Google images and you will find 99% of the clearly gendered icons are wearing a tie. Type in “CEO”, you might be shocked to realise the drought of women in search results. To add insult to injury, the first woman in the list is “CEO Barbie”, right beside pages upon pages of middle-aged white men.
Some might argue that this is insignificant, but if even the icons and stock photos used in business education and promotion are of only men then the 30% of women sitting in MBA’s might keep believing they are imposters.
Business only interests men. The bookshop told me so…
When travelling from Melbourne Airport just last week I found myself without a book. I went to buy The Economist and found it nestled in with Time, CEO, The New Yorker, The Spectacular, Fortune and The Monthly all under the heading of ‘Men’s Interest’. Seriously… I am even being explicitly told that I wouldn’t be interested in reading about business!
Some good news
The recent launch of AFL Women’s has given myself and so many of my female business colleagues so much hope. The discussions surrounding the new league have focused on the fact that young women can now see there is a future for them if they pursue the sport. You can’t be what you cant see has finally been acknowledged by the largest and most influential sporting league in the country. Initiatives like The Presentation Project are also taking a huge step in educating the business community on the detrimental effects of misrepresenting women in the media.
What are we doing?
As much as we can right now.
Ducere has begun re-examining the use of typical case favourites such as Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerburg, and actively designing more balanced and socially representative case studies using equally as impressive, though perhaps lesser known, female leaders.
My team and I now also employ a 50/50 imagery rule. For every male icon we use a female one. If we can’t find one ready-made, we commission it from a designer. In addition, our rich media is voiced and acted by both male and females in a 50/50 ratio.
What can you do?
The first step in all of this is to actually take notice and call it out! Be a conscious consumer of business material by praising or taking issue if you see a clearly biased piece of content.
For the educators, publishers and journalists. You can and must put more women in the spotlight, and in doing so, provide all genders a business sector in which they have role models to look up to.
Finally, leaders of business schools, I urge you to take a critical look at your content. Not only your diversity of faculty, but the diversity of content. Women have been active in the workforce for decades and been responsible for some of the world’s most impressive business success stories. Don’t tell me it’s too hard to find them. Look harder.
I look forward to the day when I can type CEO into Google and see multiple women pictured on the first page. Actually, I take that back. I look forward to seeing a woman’s smiling face as the top result!
By Bianca Raby, Head of Course Development, Ducere Global Business School
• Only 11% of Top Business School Case Studies Have a Female Protagonist
• The Presentation Project
• Inspiring the Future: Redraw the Balance
• The first women who appears in a Google Image search for ‘CEO’ is Barbie