It’s Time to Tackle the Gender Thought-Leadership Gap

I’m sitting in the neighborhood where British philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft began some of the world’s first writing on equal rights for women and men. On the eve of International Women’s Day I’ve opened the newspaper to find that a female competitive cyclist was forced to pause during her course because she had caught up to the men’s cycling race despite starting out ten minutes behind. As I read the news, I can’t help but feel this is a larger metaphor, one that overshadows many women’s achievements and contributions throughout history and continues to do so far more than we acknowledge.

Just think of Cecilia Payne who challenged the status quo of the time and the intellectual contributions of the men around her with a new theory of the physical make-up of the universe.* She was not allowed to receive a degree initially because she was a woman and was delayed many years in becoming a professor. To this day her intellectual and scientific break through is something most people are not aware of while we can name a large number of male thinkers with contributions equal to or lesser than hers.

Many of us are now very familiar with the gender pay gap. But what if there’s a gender thought-leadership and voice gap that even today significantly contributes to a lack of advancement, recognition, and opportunity for women as well as impoverishing public discourse about the direction our troubled world takes and the solutions we find for today’s increasingly complex challenges?

In my past work as chief technical advisor to Grant Thornton on women leadership and advancement research we found that in businesses across sectors in 35 countries women were consistently impeded by gender bias and unequal treatment. However, we do not have tracking for grey areas such as women’s advancement in fields that reach across sectors and institutions such as thought leadership, as far as I’m aware. This encompasses my own role as an independent author and consultant as well as academia, private sector expertise, and journalism, etc. (It could also be argued to include creatives that tackle the pressing issues of our day). There is however a growing body of evidence that points to entrenched gender inequity in thought leadership along with significant anecdotal evidence, which includes my own experiences as well as those of many peers.

To start, researchers at McGill University in Canada found that of 10,000 reviews by the NY Times 2/3 were of books written by men. And, the women’s books that did get reviewed largely tended towards traditional ‘female’ genres.

It stands to reason that books that don’t get high-profile reviews don’t get the visibility that then lead to recognition of thought leadership which in turn opens doors to opinion piece contributions in the leading papers and either public or private speaking engagements.

A study in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, which included a review of opinion sections across a number of papers in the U.S. concluded that the op-ed pages are “essentially a male-kingdom”. This is particularly the case related to global policy and the big picture challenges we face from climate change to the global economy, poverty, security and international relations. A review of op-eds on global affairs and policy revealed that just 15% of those published were written by women.

This is not changing fast enough with women continuing to be channeled towards relationships, family, facilitating roles such as coaching, psychology, communication, and tech as it relates to women and children. These are all topics that are often undervalued and are worthy, as are women’s contributions to them. And, they also follow traditional gender lines. If your work bridges genres on either side of the gender lines as mine does, reaching across psychology, business, and global challenges, it is even more difficult.

There are amazing women with whom I share a publisher that buck this trend and are highly visible such as Amy Webb, a well-known futurist and NYU Professor and ambassador Wendy Shermann who has written about high stakes diplomacy and leadership. That said they are the exception and are the cream of the crop as well as being at the pinnacle of their careers.

My own book about transformative resilience; living and leading through uncertainty and change; and turning challenges into opportunities personally, professionally, and globally, was co-written with my psychotherapist and entrepreneur mother Stephanie Marston. It has recently been recognized with a gold medal from Axiom, the leading business book awards, which is under male leadership. We have collaborated with and been hosted by a number of truly thoughtful and supportive men this past year, many of whom have amplified our work. I also spent this past year having opinion pieces on transformative resilience and anything related to public policy or international relations repeatedly rejected despite receiving positive feedback.

I have had this experience as a white, heterosexual, highly educated woman. I am also a published author with numerous high profile media credits to my name and a background working for female global leaders and Nobel laureates as well as with organizations across sectors on five continents. Think of the number of other women of differing backgrounds who may have similar experiences but have been silenced, don’t have the support or role models I do, or who have been made to feel like failures as individuals rather than women being failed by our systems and societies. Women are inspiring in their continued capacity to use the challenges they face to catapult themselves and others forward. That said, we have to address an urgent need for change.

Of 60,000 speakers at mostly private sector events in 23 countries, 69% were male, according to a survey from Bizzabo, the event software company. Just the other day I received the listing of spring events for a top London public thinker forum. Of 10 speakers, nine of them were men (almost all, if not all, of them were white).

When women thinkers are given less visibility it becomes easier for their ideas to be repackaged, pre-empted by those with more celebrity or public standing, or to be drowned out by others with parallel ideas** particularly if these others are men.

While the term “hepeating” originated in the workplace it is also a concern in public intellectual life. This is the phenomenon whereby an idea isn’t recognized until a man puts it forward in parallel to a woman or whereby he adopts a woman’s idea as his own, sometimes without even being conscious of it, and is then credited for it and/or given an opportunity related to it. This makes it difficult for female intellectuals to advance and prosper.

That said, concerns about the gender thought-leadership gap reach beyond women’s success and have a significant impact on the future of our world. In the face of increasing disruption, inequality, and complexity we need diverse and innovative thinking to transform our challenges into opportunities and chart a future for our businesses, economies, societies, and environment. We risk impoverishing dialogue about solutions to our most entrenched global challenges when women and a multitude of other important voices are not given opportunities for equal contributions to how problems are framed, the analysis undertaken, the goals set, the partnerships, and initiatives undertaken.

And yet, seventy five percent of speakers are men at the high level panels in Europe on the issues that will define the politics, economics, and social futures of the region, if not the globe, according to the Open Society Foundation.

Just the other day a LinkedIn article highlighted a panel at the World Economic Forum on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (e.g. addressing climate, wellbeing, economic growth, industry, security, etc). The panel was entirely made up of white men, which was first flagged online by Mila Rosenthal, director of communications for the United Nations Development Program. Based on my past experience as an advisor to the UN, gender and therefore women’s participation and leadership, is one of the issues that most cuts across the SDGs to ensure their implementation and success. A high-level all white male panel therefore sets extremely poor precedents for a path to achieving that success.

More than ever, we need solutions that reflect the varied experiences of the world’s population, at least half of which is constituted by women. We are in urgent need of these women’s insights to confront the complex challenges of our day and transform them into new opportunities and next iterations of our businesses, communities, and societies.

The next Cecilia Paynes of the world need the support, platforms, and visibility for their voices to influence both public and private sector dialogues to help us get there. But they also have the right to fully participate in public intellectual life and fulfill their potential. Regardless, women of all backgrounds have something significant to contribute to our shared intellectual evolution whether or not their contribution is as earth shattering as discovering the very substance that makes up our universe.

  • *I learned about this through the social media post of a forward thinking man, which prompted me to do further research.
  • ** This is not to say that there are no instances of men having these experiences. And there are great examples of high-profile people using their voices to lift up others.

Ama Marston is an internationally recognized strategist and thought leader. She has worked on 5 continents with global leaders like Mary Robinson, first female President of Ireland, and economist Joseph Stiglitz, the UN, FTSE and Fortune 500 companies, Oxford University, and a number of NGOs. She is the coauthor of Type R: Transformative Resilience for Thriving in a Turbulent World