Younger generations more 'prejudiced' against women leaders

14 March 2024 4 min. read
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With International Women’s Day 2024 having passed with the usual flurry of cautiously-optimistic studies on workplace parity, one report stood out. A poll from Verian and Reykjavík Global suggests that young people are increasingly ‘prejudiced’ against women in leadership positions – bucking a long-held assumption that it was only a matter of time before workplace equality could become reality.

The International Women’s Day celebrations of modern life are a long way removed from their origins. Initially growing from the international socialist movement of the early 20th century, the day is now more commonly commemorated by the annual release of a glut of research, defining progress on women’s rights according to how many women hold senior business roles.

Another way in which the current Women’s Day is far removed from its radical precursor is that each year, this body of research lauds incredibly ‘slow progress’. Gender parity in the workplace has improved in the last decade, but it has done so at a crawl, meaning that while the global portion of women in senior management roles was celebrated at being over 32% in 2023, that pace would also mean it could take further decades – and another generation of women entering the workforce before parity was even close.

Younger generations more 'prejudiced' against women leaders

And while modern liberalism has long championed incremental change as being better than no change at all, that assumption also comes with a caveat. It presumes that progress is a constant, and that things will always move forward, so slow advances are tolerable. But, amid a much less International Women’s Day in 2024, new research – developed by Verian in partnership with Reykjavík Global – was released which suggests that there are many signs that that is not the case, and that a very real pushback against the little progress already made is now on the cards.

Verian – a public policy consulting firm formerly known as Kantar Public – collaborated with Reykjavík Global to produce the 2024 Reykjavík Index for Leadership to measure how women and men are perceived in terms of their suitability for leadership. Gathering data consistently across the G7 nations – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States of America – the researchers found that for two consecutive years, G7 respondents have become more prejudiced toward women in leadership roles – hitting an index score of 70, the lowest since Reykjavík Global began keeping score.

This is being driven by changes in workplace attitudes of both men and women. According to the researchers, women had hit a score of 77 in 2021 with regards to not having prejudice against women in leadership roles, but that now sits at a 73. But even more pronounced, men only hit 71 as a peak score, and now languish at just 66, suggesting five years of apparent progress seem to be undoing themselves.

Younger generations more 'prejudiced' against women leaders

In news which may be most concerning of all to campaigners, meanwhile, the research also makes it clear that further progress regarding gender equality at work will require more than simply waiting for older staff, supposedly set in their ways, to retire. The study found that each newer generation surveyed was currently more prejudiced toward women in leadership roles than the last.

Despite regular reporting that they are more conservative, people in the G7 aged between 55 and 65 scored 75 on the index – down from a high of 78 in 2019. That decline is eclipsed by the decline of those aged between 18 and 34, who now score a rating of 64 – having been at 72 in 2020 – suggesting simply waiting for young people to change the picture is not the cure-all some suspected. Exactly what the driving forces are for this are not clear, though.

The study doesn’t distinguish between reasons why young people might be forming such opinions. Whether those are opinions driven by hateful propaganda from chauvinistic social media influences, or by the actions of women in public office – from Thatcher, to Clinton, to Meloni – and whether the fact they often end up delivering the same damaging policies as men, might mean younger people are less concerned with ‘women in leadership’ as a metric for progress. At the same time, it might not help that a matter which is on the one hand constantly being shown as ‘important’ is also one which the political mainstream is willing to accept ‘slow progress’ on – and on that basis, how unconvincing might that message be to young people?