Not many young Canadians expect a woman as CEO, survey suggests

While progress is being made to shrink the leadership gender gap, many young Canadians still picture a man when they think of a modern-day CEO. A new online survey found that only 10 per cent of Canadian youth envision a woman when they think of a CEO. 

Only 10% of Canadian youth pictured a woman when asked what a modern-day CEO looks like

A new survey from Plan International Canada found that only 10 per cent of young Canadians picture a woman when thinking of the modern-day CEO. (fizkes/Shutterstock)

While progress is being made to shrink the leadership gender gap, many young Canadians still picture a man when they think of a modern-day CEO, according to a new survey.

The results of the online survey — conducted by Nanos Research on behalf of Plan International Canada — found that only 10 per cent of Canadian youth envision a woman when they think of a chief executive. 

The survey of 1,145 females and 1,065 males in Canada between the ages of 14 and 24 was conducted from Sept. 15-24. No margin of error applies to this research. 

The survey — commissioned for the annual International Day of the Girl on Oct. 11 — also found that nearly six out of 10 girls say they sometimes feel pressure to change how they act in order to achieve their leadership aspirations. 

According to Plan International Canada, "the results suggest that despite progress, gender-related stereotypes and perceptions still pose barriers to leadership for girls."

Examples of these gender stereotypes are evident in the study, which concluded boys are more likely to describe girls using adjectives like "caring" or "emotional" rather than confident. 

More than half of the males surveyed describe females as being "caring" and "emotional," while 32 per cent described girls as being "confident."

Only 10 per cent of the boys surveyed used "emotional" as an adjective to describe what it takes to be a good leader. 

Caroline Riseboro, president and CEO of Plan International Canada, said she was shocked by the results, especially as the data comes from youth that represent the next generation — one she hopes will really embrace gender equality.

"What we're seeing is these stereotypes of leadership persist even with the younger generation," Riseboro said. "The number 1 criteria for a leader is confidence, and so if girls aren't seen as confident, they're also not seen as leaders."

What Riseboro also found shocking about the results is that while 75 per cent of young women are confident in their ability to lead, only 55 per cent of respondents actually described themselves as being confident and 81 per cent said they occasionally doubt they have what it takes to be a good leader. 

Results not surprising 

But Jennifer Flanagan, CEO of Actua, wasn't surprised by the results at all. 

"These numbers very much reflect some very negative stereotyping but also reality," said Flanagan. 

Actua is a national charity that provides programs for Canadian youth between the ages of six to 26 to prepare them to become leaders within the fields of STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

Jennifer Flanagan, CEO of Actua, said she believes that no one is born a leader and leadership is a skill that anyone can develop. (Actua)

"A lot of us, adults and kids alike, think that you're born a leader or you're not," Flanagan said. "That's false and that's something that we really need to change the perception on."

Flanagan explained that leadership is a skill that can be developed — and needs to be developed at an early age.

The same also goes for confidence, she said.

It's important to give youth opportunities to take risks and gain the necessary skills to become more confident, Flanagan said, but girls are much less likely to take risks than boys.

"Whether that is the risk to put up their hand in class, whether it's the risk to stand their ground on something that they believe in … that takes courage," Flanagan said. "Girls are often just not encouraged to do that at a young age."

Karen Adams knows all too well the barriers women face, not only on their way to getting leadership roles, but even after they've obtained them. 

Adams is the CEO of FundSERV, a technology company that connects the Canadian investment management industry.

She said one of the barriers women face in top-level positions is the lack of inclusion. 

"I remember a time when I was at a CEO strategic retreat and there was golf on the final day. And I couldn't go because it was a men's only golf club," Adams said. 

But Adams said she believes things are changing — and it starts with young girls being able to see leaders that look like them. 

Achieving success, regardless if you are a man or a woman, she added, comes down to three simple words: "Ask for more."

"It's the advice that I typically give," Adams said. "Speak up. Get noticed. That's how people get to leadership positions."

Shifting perceptions

One young woman who isn't afraid to speak up and take on leadership roles is 16-year-old Raphaelle Reyes. Reyes was in Grade 5 when she decided to run a lemonade stand with her best friend to raise funds for Plan International Canada.

Now she is a youth ambassador for the organization and a member of the its Speakers Bureau, giving presentations on gender-based violence and discrimination to fellow students.

All young girls have the inherent power within them to be CEOs.- Raphaelle Reyes, youth ambassador for Plan International Canada


Reyes said if someone were to ask her what a CEO looked like when she was younger, the first image that would have come to mind wouldn't be of a woman. 

Raphaelle Reyes, youth ambassador for Plan International Canada, said that as she learned more about gender inequality, she realized anyone has the power to be a CEO, regardless of gender. (Alia Youssef/Plan International Canada)

But her perception has changed since then. 

"As I learned more about gender inequality, as I got more engaged in my community, and as I educated myself more on these issues, I began to realize that I have the power to be a CEO," she said. "All young girls have the inherent power within them to be CEOs."

Traci Costa, founder and CEO of Vancouver-based children's lifestyle brand Peekaboo Beans, said if she were to ask her two daughters what they think the modern-day CEO looks like, they'd probably describe her. 

But out of curiosity, she asked both her 16-year-old and 10-year-old that very question.

Costa said they both answered "a woman." But what she found interesting were the adjectives her 10-year-old used to describe a female CEO: She used words like confident, outgoing, energetic and good with people. 

While her daughters envision a woman when calling to mind a modern-day CEO, Costa said she understands that's not the case for most young girls. 

"There's a general shift happening in the world and it's very, very slow," Costa said. "Oftentimes, it's just the psychological stereotypes that we grow up with."


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