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Who do Australian children perceive as leaders?

A study by Deakin Academic, Dr Claudia Escobar Vega, suggests that the death of Queen Elizabeth II is also the departure of the only female reference point that Australian children appear to associate with a political leader.

Goodbye Queen Elizabeth II 

By Dr Claudia Escobar Vega 

Goodbye Queen Elizabeth II. With you departs the only female reference point that Australian children seem to associate with a political leader.  

When I studied how Australian children thought about leadership, I asked over 250 primary school children to draw a leader. Their pictures showed that the role most often associated with a leader is a political leader, someone who can have a humanitarian impact over society’s wellbeing. 

The children in my study (conducted in 2018) recognised 17 different political personalities and Queen Elizabeth II was the only female.  

The most frequent drawing was of was Donald Trump, followed by Kim Jong-un, and then by the Queen, trailed by other leaders such as Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, and Kevin Rudd.  

The fact that Queen Elizabeth II was among these 17, meant that Australian children could appreciate that even in a world where most political leaders are male, a political leader could also be female.  

This is important, especially when so many efforts are put into increasing the diversity, equal opportunity, and representation in our current leadership. The common refrain is true – you cannot be what you cannot see. 

Despite our efforts across education to promote equality and respect for our differences, almost all the boys of today think a leader is male. In my study, 94% did.  

Girls, in contrast, tend to appreciate more female leaders. In my study, 73% of girls between Prep and Grade 5 drew a female leader and 27% drew a male leader.  

Sadly, this seems to change as girls age. In my study, only 44% of the older girls in Grade 6 drew a female leader.  

Research shows that older children in primary school pay more attention to political leaders than their younger peers, and their idea of leadership is influenced by a growing exposure to news media. Which may explain the change in gender preferences as girls age reflected in my study. Though further research is needed to explore this hypothesis.  

What can be said now is that thanks to Queen Elizabeth II’s long-reigning monarchy, at least a few boys associated a political leader with a woman, and the girls could put a female face to the role.  

With her gone, this idea may disappear. Replaced by King Charles III, the future generation’s perception of political leaders, may return to the age of male dominance. 

But we can do something to prevent this. Let’s partner with the media. My research shows that exposure to media at home (TV, radio, Internet), is what’s really shaping children’s ideas of leaders. Wouldn’t it be great if we saw more examples of Australia's female leaders more often in our media. People like Natasha Fyles, Yvonne Weldon and Annastacia Palaszczuk. 

Until then, there are some simple steps parents can take. Whenever children are exposed to politics at home, whether that’s watching TV in the living room or when the news comes on the car radio, parents can directly speak to children about the fact that even though in Australia we don’t see many female leaders in top political positions, it doesn’t mean that women can’t perform this role.  

We can talk about how it has happened before, with Julia Gillard, and can happen again. We can show them current examples like New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern, or Saara Kuugongelwa, the prime minister of Namibia.  

And at school, we really need to be talking about this from the very start. Currently children begin civics and citizenship learning in grade 3, when leadership biases have possibly already been formed. We must explain from the very early years of schooling that the opportunity for leadership in the political sphere is open to everyone and not only to a particular gender, even though it often looks like it is.  

Dr Claudia Escobar Vega is a Deakin Business School academic who researches leadership. 

Boys’ drawings and descriptions of Queen Elizabeth II

So this is the Queen. She's sitting in a chair with arm rests and wearing a crown. Here's the Big Ben, which is in London. And here's a castle with a red carpet and a limousine. [The Queen is getting out of the limousine]. The Queen is a higher ranking than everybody else who lives in that country.” 
Boy, 10Years/5Months, Grade 5 

That's the Queen of England. She is looking out the window.” 
Boy, 9Y/7M, Grade 4 

“The Queen, she's just waving bye 'cause it was meant to be like a crowd of people there” 
Boy, 8Y/9M, Grade 3 

Girls’ drawings and descriptions of Queen Elizabeth II  

"Queen [Elizabeth II] announcing all women should have the right to vote and people are in the background cheering, listening in front of Buckingham palace and her room with a chair, a picture, and a little board saying all women should have the right to vote and equal rights." 
Girl, 10Y/3M, Grade 4 

The Queen is is leading everyone in her country and this … the man, she's telling the man that he has to … what he has to do. And the queen's the leader. She's holding the stick which means that he must do it. And the crown tells that she leads the country. The builder doesn't like her because  she's just telling him something to do, doing his job. Telling him to improve. What he needs to do 'cause she's the boss of his job.” 
Girl, 8Y/9M, Grade 3 

The Queen rules the entire kingdom and makes fair choices for us” 
Girl, 8Y/1M, Grade 2 

I've got a queen in the carriage. And there's a town and there's a castle and they're going down a drawbridge. And the houses have smoke coming out of their chimneys. And it's a sunny day and there's lots of plants and grass. And there's a coach driver. Well she rules the land and she does a lot of things that queens do. Such as telling people what they should do and ruling the land. Is a nice boss Yeah but they're probably just tired of being bossed around.” 
Girl, 10Y/2M, Grade 4 

“That’s Donald Trump being called dumb for pushing the Queen into the pool and walking in front of her” 
Girl, 7Y/2M, Grade 1 

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