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Why don't women see themselves as leaders?

Book open Reading time: 4 mins

Our BN research revealed a significant confidence gap between men and women. Our female members were less confident in significant areas, namely that university is properly preparing them for their future, of what to do after university, of securing a role before they graduate and of pursuing any career path they wish. 

Just some of the negative impacts of this confidence gap were also revealed - Women's salary expectations after university were also lower, both their predicted salary one and five years from graduation - this was a significant difference of 27% to our male members' salary expectations. Furthermore women are 56% more likely than their male counterparts to abandon a job application because they lose confidence. 

But why? 

In our cultural map, confidence is inextricably linked with leadership. We expect confidence to come hand in hand with strong communication skills, resilience and assertiveness. In short those that have it stand out and get listened to. 

So why don't women see themselves as leaders? 

Well, let's start with four famous women that have represented leadership in a variety of forms, from monarchical to political to entrepreneurial. 

The British monarch Elizabeth I, is associated with one of the greatest military victories in English history, the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, yet her most widely remembered speech is: 'I may have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and the stomach of a king, and a King of England too.' This line is a disavowal of feminity, a conforming to the idea that a woman could not be a leader, despite the fact that her very postion proved otherwise. Elizabeth reflects in this the beliefs of her contemporaries, beliefs that helped fuel attempts for her crown: 'It is more than a monster in nature that a woman should reign and bear empire over man'. (Protestant preacher John Knox)

 If we assume that leaders of great social change are remembered by history - taught in schools and memorialised in culture, then these two women should be known to you. They are Emmiline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett, defining leaders in the campaign for women's suffrage in the UK. Millicent Fawcett achieved statue status this year, and is now the first woman to stand in parliament square, one of only 80 named female statues in London in compairison to 422 named male statues (as counted by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Associate).

The Harry Potter author wrote her full name, Joanne Rowling on her original manuscript when she sent it to be published. She then received a request asking that she change her first name to J.K., because according to the publisher - 'traditionally young boys don't read books by women', 'it's a peculiar sexist thing''. It makes you question how many young boys buy their own books and check the author first - should we not be questioning why parents don't buy their son's books written by women and what the impact of that choice is on young men's perception of women as leaders? 

In addition, JK Rowling has faced an enormous amount of online, gendered, abuse. Amnesty International revealed in a cross-national survey that nearly a quarter of women have experienced online harrasment and of them 55% experienced anxiety or panic attacks as a result. This attempt to silence women in the public space was pulled into a harsh spotlight by the appauling online treatment of Diane Abbott, the first black women to hold a seat in the House of Commons. 

So three things are happening here:

Women who have leadership positions disavow their femininity

Women who have achieved leadership positions are forgotten by history

Women who try to take up a leadership position receive fervent backlash

So why is this relevant? 

It takes courage and self-confidence to stand out as a leader and it takes a hell of a lot more to take up a position that is presented as not for you. Let's remember that only 26 women are in CEO roles at Fortune 500 companies (Forbes). 

The difficulties of entering the male dominated leadership spaces are multifold but essential to getting there is a real self-confidence. A comprehensive study co-authored by Said Business School recently revealed that: "It remains true that aspiring women leaders face a range of gender-related barriers at both personal and contextual levels that are simply unknown to their male peers,’ said Tim Morris, Professor of Management Studies at Oxford Saïd. ‘Our study found that it is possible for women to overcome these, but only through an enormous amount of “self-work”, starting early in their careers. Significantly, we discovered that the successful female CEOs we interviewed dealt with the challenge of gender stereotypes not by subverting them but by transcending them." 

So what do we do about it? 

We will share the stories of female leaders. We will provide a platform for them to discuss how they overcame their own lack of confidence, and succeeded against those structures that could otherwise have excluded them from their leadership position. We will support our female members through our events, mini networks and editorial content and we will remind them of their own exceptional value and potential.