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24 October 2012

Do we all unconsciously believe that male equals leader?

PwC has been a proud sponsor of the Women’s Forum for Economy and Society since its inception.   The Women’s Forum eight annual global meeting took place a little earlier this month in Deauville, France.   This year I didn’t attend the event but Aoife has managed to give me and hopefully all of you a little taste of what is always a fantastic meeting with the blog below. 



Earlier this month I got to attend the Women’s Forum for Economy and Society’s annual global meeting for the first time.  And what an amazing experience it was.  

I was a little awed by the grandeur of the event but even more so by some of the speakers, and particularly female speakers who addressed us.  We had two Nobel Peace Prize Laureates (Shirin Ebadi and Leymah Gbowee) the Government Spokesperson and French Minister of Women’s Rights (Najat Vallaud-Belkacem) and Cherie Blair (Founder and Patron of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women).  Pretty good going, right?

Additionally the Women’s Forum had 17 young amazing women attend as part of their Rising Talent Network, each and every one of whom was both inspiring and impressive.

I am very pleased to share that PwC sponsored a break-out session entitled ‘Rising Stars: developing millennial women as leaders’ a solutions focused session based on the research findings of Dr. Elizabeth Kelan’s very recent book of the same name.


We were very lucky to have two of the aforementioned rising talent Michelle Meyer and Melissa Boteach partake in this panel discussion.  Their perspective combined with Dr. Kelan’s and Agnes Hussherr of our D&I council truly made the experience of moderating this panel discussion an exceptional one for me (the picture below shows the panel in action).  The experiences and thoughts they shared will stay with me for a long time and no doubt filter into the themes of future blogs.  Do watch this space as Dr. Kelan will be sharing a guest blog on her earlier referenced book in the very near future.


The final day of the Women’s Forum global meeting opened with a plenary session I had very much been looking forward.  Entitled “Look me in the brain: Do we all unconsciously believe that leader=male?”  and facilitated by Nathalie Malige, CEO, Diverseo. Well,  it did not disappoint and I just had to blog about it.

Nathalie took us through a live implicit association (more commonly known as unconscious bias) test, the results of which showed it took the audience longer to associate women as leaders as it did men.  Fascinating really, given that most of the delegates attending the plenary were women.  Why not watch the session or read Diverseo’s white paper to learn more about the science behind our implicit biases – we all have them.  Ultimately while we think we know what we think, unbeknown to us our brain makes different decisions.  All in all, it is pretty captivating stuff.    

Nathalie shared the findings of research she conducted specifically in the run up the Women’s Forum meeting which found that “while most people consciously believe that men and women are equally good leaders, in fact, they tend to recognise any random well-dress grey-haired serious-looking man as a leader more than famous female leaders such as Julia Gillad, Dilma Roussef or Christine Lagarde.”  Yes, what I am saying is that while explicitly men and women believe that men and women are equally effective leaders, when it comes to our automatic associations (implicit) they tend to recognise leadership more easily in unknown men than in well-known female leaders


Diverseo’s white paper talks of the growing body of scientific evidence that suggest that implicit bias has meant even when a woman has demonstrated better leadership skills, the man will still probably be promoted.  The result non-promoted female leader will often adjust and tend to opt out as a result.  Not good!

On a more positive note the research also found that men with female managers have lower associations of men with leadership.  So, the more women that we have in management and leadership positions should ultimately lower both men and women’s implicit associations of male = leader.  The white paper also has a focus on solutions and discussed in detail a three-stage approach to help women grow in the workforce and thus capture incremental value, outlined through three core steps which are:

  1. Build awareness and shape the business case
  2. Collect numbers to target the actions
  3. Transform the environment  

The good news is the attractive finding that 80% of people who take a relevant and related implicit association tests before making a decision are more objective than people who do not take the test.  So why not take a test, and learn more about your implicit associations.  After what this plenary session thought me I know that I want to learn more about mine!



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