The #girlboss has lost her lustre. A recent survey of nine- to 18-year-old girls reported that they rank “being a leader” the lowest priority in a list of 17 attributes for future work. Girls, the report concludes, were “nearly three times as likely to prioritise being healthy and safe” – you would hope – and “twice as likely to prioritise being respected than being a leader”. I like that: weren’t the two traditionally considered complementary? I suppose the farce-tragedy of the Borisiad has estranged concepts of leadership and respect so comprehensively that the two can’t be in the same country as each other, let alone the same gold-wallpapered room.
Apart from being governed by a man who needed to be penned in with a puppy gate, what has turned young women off leadership? There’s the perennial “you can’t be what you can’t see” issue: women remain dramatically underrepresented as CEOs and on boards, and Covid bulletproofed the glass ceiling. A survey quoted by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in his cathartically titled book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? found that 92% of Americans couldn’t name a female leader in tech, and a quarter of the remaining 8% offered “Alexa” or “Siri”. The Rekyjavik index, measuring attitudes towards women in leadership in G7 countries, hasn’t improved since 2019, with the most recent report concluding “deeply rooted views on female leadership are hard to shift”. Plus, the UN says we are still 257 years away from gender pay parity (by which time, on current reckoning, the few survivors of any sex living in a burnt-out Greggs will have more pressing matters to worry about than what Paul from Accounts is making: he’ll be making rat stew like everyone else).
There are more female leaders in public life than ever before – a dizzying 30 female heads of state or government. (About 15%! What a time to be a woman!) But it doesn’t look much fun, does it? Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues have faced “a rising tide of misogyny” including threats of rape and murder. Finnish PM Sanna Marin’s cheery-looking night out led to weeks of scandalised comment and a drug test. Jess Phillips and other female MPs have spoken out about the violent abuse they face. Research earlier this year showed what we know: as the public profile of women rises, the scrutiny they face becomes more negative more quickly than it does for men.
Who wouldn’t be put off if that is what awaits you in leadership? But it’s a shame. The difference is not glaring, but women do outperform men as leaders. Chamorro-Premuzic quotes a meta-analysis of research on the topic, which shows women’s leadership strategies are more effective than men’s. They have more flexible and creative approaches to problem-solving, are fairer and more objective with subordinates, communicate more effectively and get more respect (see, girls: you can have both!).
I am left thinking vaguely contradictory things. One is that teenage girls should do whatever they damn well like. Life is tough enough for them without being subjected to our handwringing at their lack of leadership ambition. When the system is skewed against you, why not say: sod it? Be an alpaca herder, make vegan muffins, or go and live in a tree.
But the world is also a bleak place for women and girls who are not in charge: the less power you have, the more vulnerable you are to those who abuse theirs.
In the US, women’s reproductive choices are scrutinised and criminalised; girls are even deleting their period tracker apps for fear of reprisals. Women in Afghanistan are banned from travelling and girls are forced to study in secret.
Then, of course, there is Iran. I have been watching in terrified, wondering awe at the bravery and spirit of young women and teenage girls, giving the ayatollahs the finger, waving their headscarves and heckling paramilitaries. They shouldn’t need to be leading the charge, risking their lives to challenge a regime policing its twisted ideas of women’s “morality” with murderous violence. The world has failed them, as it fails so many other girls and women. But that’s the thing about leadership: when the alternative is bad enough, sometimes it is thrust upon you.
Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist
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