Rachel Pashley: global board planning director at JWT
Rachel Pashley: global board planning director at JWT
A view from Rachel Pashley

The first female precedent: how role models can change the world for women

In this "post truth" fake news era the facts about female leadership are being distorted, writes the global board planning director at JWT.

While there is much to admire about Sheryl Sandberg’s prophecy, "In the future there will be no female leaders, just leaders", for many women the US inauguration, among other things, marks the end of hope – at least for another four years – for a US female president, further proof that the glass ceiling is markedly harder to crack than we thought.

Women  know your place, back to the needlepoint. But was the Hillary moment the pinnacle of how far women have come or are we missing something? Because in the "post truth" fake news era perhaps the facts of female leadership have been airbrushed from history, or conveniently forgotten.

The problem with attaching so much significance to Hillary’s potential win was that we overlooked the women who had already won, who already held office, and were busying themselves running countries unencumbered by their ovaries.

In fact the spectre of a female president is no longer news. There are currently more than 20 female world leaders, yes that’s right, we’ve made it to double figures.

Perhaps if we were more familiar with the scale of female leadership we’d be more comfortable with the idea of a woman on top, and see them as leaders and not that special category of "female leaders" that are usually described as unstable/shrill/hormonal/ woman/witch in the driving seat’ – delete as appropriate.

You see by getting caught up in the excitement to witness the first US female president we lost sight of or were ignorant of female precedent – women already in office, leading, kicking ass.

In fact beyond political office there are many more female precedents we should be aware of. A film hitting cinema screens this month is the significantly titled Hidden Figures. It tells the story of the female "human computers" at Nasa, many of whom were African American mathematicians who were pivotal in the landmark moments of space travel – ever heard of them? No, thought not, and we wonder why it’s so hard to encourage girls into Stem (science, technology, engineering, maths) careers.

By getting caught up in the excitement to witness the first US female president we lost sight of or were ignorant of female precedent – women already in office, leading, kicking ass.

The fact that the film has knocked Rogue One to lead the US box office tells you something of the appetite to hear about female achievement outside of baking competitions.

From our own research, the JWT Women’s Index, 60% of women around the world felt that women’s achievements had been airbrushed from the history books, they feel this way because it’s true. Heard much about the woman who discovered nuclear fission? Thought not. Or the woman who started the environmental movement?

It’s fair to say that the film industry is a significant propagator of influencing the way we see the world and framing perceived wisdom. Don’t under-estimate its influence.

After the release of Jaws, great white sharks were hunted almost to extinction because the film world had painted them as the piscatorial weapon of mass destruction. In reality you’re still more likely to die at the wheels of a car. Which is why as women we should be concerned that in the film world, or "reel" world, over 77% of women are depicted as unemployed whereas in the real world more than 50% of women are in gainful employment, rising to 70% and beyond in the developed world. And while the pay gap still exists, from our Women’s Index study we witnessed over 50% of women claiming to be the major breadwinner at home.

The fake news or fiction of female achievement in popular culture serves not only to misrepresent us, it holds us back, informs decision making and has a long term impact on women’s potential. Our research discovered that onscreen female role models influenced women’s careers and life decisions. More than one in 10 women around the world had been inspired to take up a leadership position, with 58% claiming role models had made them either more ambitious or more assertive.

Equally women felt that female achievement in the "reel" world translated into the real world as well, with two thirds of women saying that if they saw more women as politicians, scientists or corporate leaders onscreen it would make it easier for them to realise those goals in real life.

Finally, 84% of women said they wanted to hear more about female achievement and less about the latest fashion or beauty trend. Women’s Monthlies take note.

Seeing women as scientists, leaders or politicians onscreen serves to normalise these roles for women, it’s no longer unusual, or a risk – and so our unconscious bias of what a leader looks like changes, and perhaps like men we’re hired based on our potential not just proof of our abilities.

Rachel Pashley is global board planning director at JWT.