In 2000, Tarja Halonen became the first female president of Finland and was reelected 3 times serving a total of 12 years. She was very popular and enjoyed high approval ratings. At the end of her term, some Finnish schoolchildren were given a list of potential presidential candidates and asked who they think would win.
In response to hearing male candidates on the list some children actually asked – Can a man be President?
Yet in most countries today, we question: Can a woman be President? Can a woman be a successful leader or entrepreneur?
Attitudes towards women in executive positions can have a strong effect on women choosing to take on these higher roles and responsibilities. Successful high potential female entrepreneurs are similar to female executives in terms of their visible leadership roles in the private sector.
Social norms and expectations impact female leaders and entrepreneurs in two critical ways: First, they impact the general societal support for women as leaders and entrepreneurs, which can affect an individual woman’s decision to take the risk to become a leader or an entrepreneur. Second, social norms also impact the access women have to experiences as decision-makers and leaders as well as to the range of occupations women have – all of which may act to either impede or encourage the development of high growth female entrepreneurs.
Data collected by the World Values Survey provide some interesting insights to this issue. Female responses to the question whether male business executives are better than female business executives vary considerably between countries. The results shown in the figure below are given in terms of the percentage of women that do not think there is a difference. Sweden has the highest percentage (94%) which indicates that the majority of women do not feel there is any difference between male and female business executives. However, in eight countries, 60% or less female respondents believed there was no difference: South Korea (60%), Russia (59%), Thailand (59%), Malaysia (57%), Turkey (52%), India (45%) and Ghana (42%). In Egypt only 18% of the female respondents felt that there was no difference.
When such a strong opinion is expressed in a hypothetical case (where the actual capabilities of the male and female executive are unknown), it is reasonable to expect that attitudes towards women in other positions demanding decision-making and leadership capabilities such as high growth female entrepreneurs, CEOs, Presidents or Prime Ministers would encounter a similar bias.
Yet in the new globally competitive landscape, countries need to consolidate their talent pool regardless of gender in all areas of the economy in order to thrive.
Favorable Perceptions of Female Executive Status
Key: Countries highlighted in green are the highest ranking countries, countries highlighted in blue are moderate to low ranking countries; countries highlighted in red are the lowest ranking countries.
Source: Gender-GEDI 2014; original data from World Values Survey (various years).