Women in Leadership: CEO Barbie

In November 2014, the Pew Research Center surveyed public attitudes regarding gender and leadership in US politics and business. They found that people see little differences between men and women when it comes to leadership. Both genders were equal in terms of innovation, ambition and decisiveness. The major differences that surfaced were women were seen as more willing to compromise and men were better at risk taking.

Notice the disparity with the results of the Pew survey and actual representation of women in executive ranks. Of the companies traded on the Standard and Poor’s 500 stock index, only 4.6% of these companies had women chief executive officers. The numbers were not much better for the Fortune 500 where only 4.8% of these companies were headed by women.

Even the federal government often maligned as the poster child of what is wrong with the country, had better numbers than the private sector when it comes to executive female representation. Women occupy 34% of all Senior Executive Service positions in the federal government.

Why such a wide difference of opinion regarding our perception of women in leadership and their actual low representation in executive ranks. The smoking gun may be unconscious bias.

The University of Washington just released a study that indicated search engine results can impact people’s perception on which jobs are held by men and women. They looked at 45 different occupations to see if online search results matched the equitable gender statistics found in the Pew study.

Overall, women were slightly underrepresented in all professions and in some isolated cases like chief executive officer, were dramatically underrepresented in Google image search results. The percentage of women depicted in the top 100 Google image results for chief executive officers was only 11% as compared to the actual percentage of women chief executive officers in the US at 27%.

For women authors, only 25% of people depicted in image search results were women even though women make up 56% of current US authors.

More bias surfaced when image search results matching a person whose gender did not match a vocational stereotype were depicted as seductive or tasteless. When online searches were made for women as construction workers, images portrayed these women as sexual objects posing provocatively with a sledge hammers.

It gets even worse. The phrase first “woman chief executive officer” resulted in an image of a chief executive office Barbie doll. Additional searches with identifiers like “female chief executive officer” gave rise to categories of information that limited women to the sphere of who wants to be America’s next model as opposed to who wants to be America’s next chief executive officer:

• Outfit
• Attire
• Glasses
• Successful Business Woman Profile
• Business Woman Silhouette

The unconscious bias pushed into the light by this study forces the Googles, Bings and Yahoos of the world to ask the question if search image algorithms should be revised to counteract occupational stereotypes in a world fueled by artificial intelligence rather than human intelligence.

Another example of the high tech, low touch world we live in where the most visible example of women’s leadership is a 56 year old fashion doll.

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