Adding to the ongoing debate about the causes of a gender gap in business leadership, Pew Research Center [recently] released a report on women in leadership, with the subtitle, “Public Says Women are Equally Qualified, but Barriers Persist.” This title begs the question, what barriers? Based on data from Pew’s nationally representative survey, 80% of people (81% of women, 79% of men) think that women and men make equally good business leaders.  But the most people (74% of women and 61% of men) thought that it was easier for men to get top executive positions in business at present.  And neither men nor women were particularly optimistic about the future; over half of each (55% of women, 52% of men) thought that “even as more women move into management roles, men will continue to hold more top executive positions in business in the future.”

What’s holding women back? The top two answers for both genders — each cited by 43% of respondents – were that women are held to higher standards, and that many businesses are not ready to hire women for top executive positions. So: 80% of people (at least ostensibly) think women make just as good business leaders as men, but 43% of people think that other people have retained some residual gender bias against women as business leaders.

Looking at a breakdown of men’s and women’s views on individual components of leadership reveals that women are perceived to be the fairer sex (and may be slightly holier-than-thou)—and that attributes representative of fairness are perceived as essential qualities for leaders. Noteworthy proportions of each gender thought that:

  • Women are better at being honest and ethical (35% of women and 24% of men thought this)
  • Women are better at providing fair pay and good benefits (34% of women, 24% of men)
  • Men were better at being willing to take risks (31% of women, 37% of men)
  • Men were better and negotiating profitable deals (18% of women, 18% of men)2

Eighty-eight percent of women and 81% of men saw honesty as an essential quality for leaders (business or otherwise), and _% of women and 47% of men saw compassion as an essential [quality] for a leader. (Unfortunately, Pew did not ask respondents if they saw “willingness to take risks” or “ability to negotiate profitable deals” as essential qualities for leaders.) The discrepancy here is, of course, what the general public thinks are essential leadership qualities may differ from those that (predominantly male) business leaders think are essential.

Is it possible that women are just not interested in top positions? An article in the Harvard Business Review based on a survey of nearly 25,000 graduates of Harvard Business School found that, “[t]he highly educated, ambitious women and men of HBS don’t differ much in terms of what they value and hope for in their lives and careers.” The article also revealed a misbelief about family responsibilities: 85% of women and 73% of men saw “prioritizing family over work” as the “the number one barrier to women’s career advancement,” but empirical evidence contradicts this, as “both men and women in top management teams were typically more likely than those lower down in the hierarchy to have made career decisions to accommodate family responsibilities.” Adding to the confusion, only 26% of women and 20% of men in the Pew Survey saw the time commitment of women’s family responsibilities as a major barrier to women [obtaining] top business positions. 1

The research mentioned here serves as a reminder that people’s outwardly expressed perceptions don’t always get to the core of the reality of that experience. If 80% of people believe woman should be in positions of power, yet half those people believe sexism will get in the way, it makes you wonder what overlap there is between those that hold some type of sexist belief and those that believe sexism gets in the way. The research suggests that lack of ambition or family obligations are not barriers for success for women, so the next step is figuring out how we tackle unconscious bias as a prohibitor for women entering positions of power.

1 Not having done the math, it’s impossible to say whether these differences are statistically significant. The sample of HBS students was roughly 26,000 and Pew was about 1800, so estimating the margin of error… TBD