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Updated: September 5, 2022 viewpoint

What does a leader look like?

The other day, I mentioned I was headed to a meeting with a fellow executive director. “Where are you meeting him?” my companion asked. “Her,” I corrected. This perfectly well-intentioned exchange made me wonder: How do we instinctively envision directors, presidents, C-suite professionals – leaders?

A photo of Julie Bowditch wearing a pink top and black blazer in front of a brick wall.
PHOTO | Courtesy of The CASA Project
Julie Bowditch, executive director of The CASA Project Worcester County.

Are executives not only male in our mind’s eye, but also white, clean-shaven, and wearing a suit? Do we picture them driving to meetings from suburbia in their shiny sedans streaming classic rock? In our imagination, do they have an Ivy League education or at least several degrees and certificates plastering their walls?

Upon Google image searching “CEO” I found, out of the top 10 photos, six of them were white males, three were white females, and one was a light-skinned male of color. All were in dark business suits and, all but one were pictured either in a boardroom or a posh office. All 10 appeared to be able-bodied and around middle-age.

Professional leaders are prescribed to look and act a certain way. They do not have visible tattoos or piercings, colorful hair, or creative outfits. Perhaps they live in certain zip codes and wear certain brands. They are expected to conform not only through the things within their control like personal style but are judged by integral elements such as race and gender.

A Harvard Business study revealed more men named John are running companies (5.3%) than total women with any name doing so (4.1%). Firms with CEOs named David outnumber women-led businesses (4.5%).

Zippia research states 65.1% of leaders in the U.S. are white, 16.6% are Hispanic or Latino, 11.3% are Black, 4.9% are Asian, and a meager 0.6% are American Indian or Alaska Native. The same study claims only 5% of our nation’s leaders are LGBTQIA+.

Furthermore, every president of the United States, arguably the most visible leadership role in the country, has identified as male and all but one has been white. The median age of incoming U.S. presidents is 55 years.

Society has ingrained these expectations into us so relentlessly some individuals can hardly picture themselves in a leadership role. While I have met many middle-aged white male leaders who I respect deeply, I know a great many people who look nothing like them yet are extremely talented. People who do not fit a traditionally professional persona can be equally effective.

We need to check our unconscious biases, certainly when we hire and promote, but also when it comes to our perception of leaders. Please don’t assume my meeting with a fellow director is with a man. Don’t make the presumption the edgy, ethnic, or gender-diverse person you encounter must be a bartender or an artist. Maybe they own a company, run a nonprofit, or are a leader in industry. You can learn something new from them.

Julie Bowditch is executive director of nonprofit The CASA Project Worcester County.

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