One groundbreaking success does not solve gender inequality

Kamala Harris makes history as the first woman elected to be US Vice President. How we talk about her achievement is equally important.

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Kamala Harris’s election to the office of US Vice President is a historic moment. When she takes the oath of office on 20 January 2021, the US Senator will become the first Black, South Asian woman US Vice President.

But could language around Harris’s rise to top of political leadership inadvertently undermine efforts to achieve gender equality in other domains? 

Research led by Dr Oriane Georgeac (now an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at Yale School of Management) during her PhD at London Business School with her advisor Dr Aneeta Rattan, LBS Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour, explored how people make sense of these exciting moments of advancement for women. They found that positive coverage of women’s stronger representation in top leadership positions increased people’s perception that women now have access to equal opportunities in general, which subsequently led them to express less concern about the ongoing inequalities that women continue to face (e.g., gender pay gap, household chores distribution, etc.).  

Their paper, ‘Progress in Women’s Representation in Top Leadership Weakens People’s Disturbance with Gender Inequality in Other Domains’ appeared in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Speaking about the findings of the research, Dr Georgeac said: “We need to acknowledge the reality that progress toward gender equality in top leadership representation is not necessarily the same as progress toward equality in women’s representation at other levels of organisations, or progress toward equality in other domains, such as gender and gender-race pay gaps, or gendered household disparities.”

Dr Georgeac highlights that organisational messages celebrating progress for women at the top could actually have a negative effect.

“What we observed was that when people read that women are now well-represented in organisations’ top leadership levels, they show decreased concern for persisting forms of inequality that women face in other domains,” she said. 

While their research focussed on people’s reactions to messages about increasing female representation in organisations’ top leadership levels, the findings have implications for a wide range of situations, including Harris’s election.  

“These types of milestones are really worth celebrating,” Dr. Rattan said. “But what our research shows is that when talking about women leaders’ achievements, whether at an organisational level or a national political level, it is important to acknowledge that the messages we read and share can inadvertently – and prematurely – create an impression that gender equality has been realised across the board. It’s important to be careful with our language to avoid this potential misunderstanding to which people tend to fall prey.”

How can stakeholders – organisations, the media, politicians and everyday commentators - acknowledge the achievements of female leaders while also avoiding the potential pitfalls of doing so?

According to Dr Georgeac, being mindful of the language chosen and the negative effect certain messaging can have is an important first step. She said common phrases like ‘making progress toward equality’, in particular, could be improved. 

“One option is to just build into those kinds of statements the complexity that exists out there in the real world. So instead of talking about progress toward equality, we can talk about progress toward equality for a specific goal or a specific issue,” Dr Georgeac said. “In addition, instead of talking about equality, we can talk about equalities, and thereby acknowledge the reality that there are many different domains of gender inequality, and that progress for women in top leadership representation does not imply that progress in other domains of inequality will naturally follow.”

Dr Rattan said talking about progress opens up an opportunity to also remind people of what is still to be done, or what could be the next goal. “By talking about progress, and then where there is yet to go, we might both be more accurate and avoid the downsides that our research has identified.”

“Rather than focussing solely on the positive progress being made in one arena, use it as an opportunity to move the conversation along to areas where improvement still needs to be made. This is one very exciting thing we have observed about VP Harris and President-Elect Biden’s language: every time they celebrate the historic nature of their victory, they also highlight the far distance yet to go toward greater equality for all women – showcasing both their commitment to the goal, and a more accurate understanding of where US society is today.”