Who’s in Charge? Most Teens Don’t Care

Ask any teenager who’s the more effective leader, a man or a woman, and the majority says both. This is the finding of a recent study out of Harvard on Teens and Leadership. Does this finding conflict with the recent study from Harvard that drew headlines such as, “A new study reveals that adolescents–male and female–still largely prefer men in leadership”? No. Because it’s the same study.

Here are the findings.

Who is a more effective political leader?

23% men
8% women
69% no preference

40% men
4% women
56% no preference

Who is the more effective business leader?

There was no significant difference between girls’ preference for male versus female business leader.

36% men
6% women
58% no preference

When there is a gender preference it is overwhelmingly male. Certainly, this is concerning. Yet, media coverage and the study itself choose to gloss over what is an encouraging finding: More often than not there is no gender preference.

The study also tried to identify implicit bias. Again, when there is a preference it is for male leaders. The study does not share data, but a footnote states that the preference is “small but statistically significant.”

So let’s take a quick look at our women political and business leaders.
• Presidents: 0%
• Governors: 10%
• Mayors of largest cities: 12%
• Congress: 20%
• Fortune 500 CEOs: 4.6%
• Fortune 500 Board Seats: 16.9%
• Executive Officers: 14.6%
• Top earners: 8.1%

The New York Times found there are fewer female heads of SP 500 companies than male heads named John! And, the situation for women of color is worse still. Though one-third of the female workforce, women of color hold only 11.9% of managerial and professional positions. [Source: CfAP]

So while headlines express surprise that any bias exists (“Study Finds Unexpected Biases Against Teen Girls’ Leadership”) I, on the other hand, am impressed by the ability of these young people to imagine a world much fairer than the one we live in.

We may tell each successive generation that girls and boys are equal, but as any educator will tell you, kids learn less by what you say and more by what you do. And the statistics above paint a pretty clear picture of the world we are modeling.

To drive home the point: The study also asked about childcare leaders. In this case, the bias is much stronger (Girls: neither 51%, females 49%, males 0.03%; Boys: neither 49%, females 45%, males 6%). Nearly 95% of childcare workers are women. Can we really be surprised by the preference for female childcare leaders? If anything, it’s surprising the preference for women is not greater.

I agree with the conclusions of this study: Biases, explicit and implicit, are real and it’s important to counter bias with awareness, education and the cultivation of alternative practices

Yet, highlighting bias and ignoring findings that show biases have been overcome:
• encourages misinterpretations such as “girls don’t see themselves as leaders,”
• can have the unintended effect of reinforcing explicit and implicit biases by suggesting their persistence is evidence of their unwieldy strength; worse yet, are merely reflective of innate differences,
• can blind us to avenues of change.

The avenue of change endorsed by this study is bias training. I’m all for it. But, at the same time, let’s not underestimate our children’s intelligence. Looking at the results of this study, how much is bias and how much is simply reporting the way the world works? How much reflects conventional wisdom’s “figurehead” version of leadership and how much true leadership skills? We can teach and teach and teach, but unless we are honest about the real world situation, our children are smart enough to see through it. Match what we like to tell our children, “Girls can do anything!” with those statistics above and you get cognitive dissonance or, worse-case-scenario, a new message: “except lead.”

If anything, this study should tell us that biases are not remnants of another time, they do, in fact, perpetuate. Change is not going to happen miraculously. We have to take action. And this means more than training young people about bias. We can’t just tell children what to do. We need to model it.


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