More than Words: Dismantling the Gender Myths that Hinder Women’s Leadership

Powerful movements for women’s rights, youth rights, and gender equality are emerging worldwide on an unprecedented scale. While the need to elevate women’s agency is recognized across sectors, women continue to be vastly under-represented in decision-making in politics, businesses, and community leadership.

As world leaders gathered in New York during the 73rd United Nations General Assembly, Women Deliver convened a group of distinguished panelists to discuss the barriers preventing women from entering leadership roles and to examine how we can better support the women and youth leaders of tomorrow.

One of our top takeaways was that harmful gender stereotypes continue to hold us back. Damaging gender norms stall progress and perpetuate misconceptions that hinder women’s ability to ascend in the political, business, and community spheres.

Here are common myths that we are ready to dispel!

Women are risk-averse.

Women lack confidence. Women fear failure. Women lack ambition. The “Fix the Woman” myth is all too common in the workplace. It inhibits women’s career advancement and those who enforce it fail to reflect on the bias that perpetuates the myth itself: overestimating men’s potential at the expense of their female counterparts.

Breaking down deeply rooted stereotypes takes concerted action. We need to provide girls and women with the opportunity to see themselves as strong leaders at all levels, in all sectors. One positive example we see is at multinational corporation, Proctor & Gamble. Deanna Bass, Director of Global Diversity and Inclusion, is leading efforts to change social norms portrayed in P&G’s advertising and media campaigns, dedicating funding to education and economic opportunities for female employees, and fostering a 50/50 leadership environment inside P&G.

Marlène Schiappa, French Secretary of Gender Equality speaks at Women Deliver’s UNGA Event: Women Leading the Way (Credit: Ayano Hisa).

There are simply not enough women in the leadership pipeline.

We wanted to hire a woman, but there were not any qualified female applicants. There are just not enough experienced women leaders out there. This myth is used to perpetuate male-dominated leadership structures and it prevents women from holding an equal share of power.

In many counties, women actually outpace men in university graduation rates, yet they remain underrepresented at every organizational level. To shift the scale toward equal representation, proactive initiatives and policies are crucial. Across sectors, quotas prove to be an effective mechanism for increasing women’s representation. Many countries have adopted quotas for publicly elected offices and corporations use them to create more inclusive management chains and executive boards. Forty-percent of HP’s executive board is made up of women and P&G has committed to gender parity in all parts of the company. These initiatives yield substantial benefits. Research shows that companies with strong women leadership demonstrate a return on investment that is 35 percent higher annually than companies without.

Gender equality only benefits girls and women.

As women-led movements gain momentum, the elephant in the room continues to be about where boys and men fit into collective action on gender equality. Former Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard framed this as the misconception that female politicians come into office only to pursue women’s issues. However this phrase itself is limiting, since what we tend to think of as a “women’s issue” actually benefits society as a whole.

We must endorse the notion that shifting gender norms benefits everyone. Bringing more voices and perspectives into decision-making leads to more inclusive, progressive policies on health care, education, and social issues. “If women are in leadership, if women are doing good things, it benefits our families, societies, and beyond,” said Nazma Akter, Founder of the Awaj Foundation, which helps female garment workers organize in Bangladesh. “Women have been delivering for centuries,” added Nate Hurst, Chief Sustainability and Social Impact Officer at HP. “I try to listen and learn as much as I can and model behavior.”

Young people are not qualified to lead.

Today’s global generation of young people is the largest ever. This generation spans cultures, geographies, professions, and backgrounds, and they are seeking more representation at the decision-making table, especially when it comes to policies that directly affect their lives. However, the voices of youth — particularly adolescent girls, young people living in humanitarian contexts, and other marginalized identities — are often excluded from important conversations.

We need to build an equal playing field by embracing programs that provide skills training and support for young people throughout their leadership journeys. Young Leader Yasmine Ouirhrane emphasized the importance of empowering young women through meaningful inclusion, not tokenism. “Young women need to be self-organized, need to be given a space to express themselves, but most importantly they need to be given resources, a true budget,” said Ouirhrane. Youth are the future of our world and they must be treated as such.

Young Leaders Yasmine Ouirhrane (left) and Isatou Bittaye (right) serve as panelists at the UNGA Event: Women Leading the Way (Credit: Ayano Hisa).

Gender stereotypes are not just about words. These myths limit women’s employment opportunities, access to resources, and agency in decision-making processes. While there are many that assume these misconceptions are only about the roles of girls and women, at Women Deliver we know that achieving a more gender equal world lifts up economies, communities, and entire countries.

Gender myths hold us all back, in a big way, but we have the power to change the narrative. By using your voice and your impact to counter these stereotypes, you can create positive change for all of us. So speak out and say it loud! The world needs to hear you.

For more information, please visit our website to download our infographic and read our policy brief on the benefits of women’s leadership and political participation.

Women Deliver an unwavering advocate for girls and women. We believe that when the world invests in girls and women, everybody wins!

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