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How deep is the male bias against women as leaders?

Dr Barbara Jamieson, Senior Teaching Fellow

Faculty Blog

Kevin Roberts, Executive Chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, resigned after claiming that women in the advertising industry lacked ambition and were not held back by sexisim. It is to the firm’s credit that Robert Senior, worldwide CEO, quickly released a statement distancing the firm from Roberts’s views, saying: ‘Saatchi & Saatchi is, and has always been, a meritocracy. We live and die by our people, our talent, and it makes no difference to us whether that talent is male or female. Indeed, I’m very proud to be able to say that 65 per cent of our staff are female, and it is to our great benefit that we have women in senior leadership roles across our business. However, the issue of gender diversity is not in any way over for our industry. It is live, emotive and vital for the communications business that we continue to insist that the best people, whatever their gender, are able to achieve their potential.’

So if the issue is ‘not in any way over’, then just how deeply ingrained in our male-dominated business culture are such attitudes? How prevalent, albeit perhaps hidden, is the bias against women as leaders? Do men say one thing in public but another when they are in the locker room?

Recent research by Kaiser and Wallace1 would indicate that attitudes have moved on, that Roberts’s attitude may be an archaic exception rather than the norm. In comparing the leadership behaviour ratings of 857 female leaders with 857 male leaders from 6 different companies in Western Europe, the US and Australia, the researchers found no bias against women and even a slight bias in favour of them. However, as with other studies, there were also indications that women tend to use different styles.

Regardless, there is still a distance to go. Although women comprise 50% of the workforce in the US, they still hold fewer than 15% of the corporate officers’ jobs.

1Kaiser, R B and Wallace, W T, 2016, ‘Gender bias and substantive differences in ratings of leadership behavior: Toward a new narrative’, Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 68(1), 72-98.