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A man in dress shoes and dress pants stands next to a woman in heels.
Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin
Spot the CEO.
WHAT LEADERS LOOK LIKE

A new ad from Uber and Girlboss pointedly illustrates the power of gender perceptions

By Lila MacLellan

We almost want to apologize for featuring yet another hidden-camera video capturing “real” people’s reactions to highlight a social issue, but we won’t.

This one has a twist: Despite the obligatory melancholic soundtrack, it introduces some long overdue optimism into the discussion about gender perceptions at work, and we’re told that the “real” people in it actually are real, i.e. not actors.

Here’s the scene: A string of female entrepreneurs arrive at what they believe is a consumer research company, where they’ll be joining a focus group. A receptionist asks each visitor to go speak with the CEO, who is just around the corner “in the glass office.” When the women turn the corner, they find two glass offices, one occupied by a woman and one by a man.

Watch what happens:

The promo spot was made to advertise a new startup funding competition run by Uber and by Girlboss, a digital media company focused on women in business. The two companies have teamed up to run Uber Pitch, which will put promising applicants in front of a panel of expert judges and reward more than $200,000 (in cash and Uber ride-hailing credit) to three entrants.

The video has been edited to first illustrate how many women knock on the man’s door. (One woman asks the receptionist, “What’s his name?” before she sets off to look for the boss.)

But toward the middle of the “story,” we begin to see that some of the visitors do assume the woman is the CEO, and that a few try both doors.

In follow-up interviews, many of the women are asked to explain what was running through their minds as they decided whom to approach. One woman tells the camera, “It was like some logic, but also some unconscious [thought], like, the CEO is probably a guy, which sort of makes me mad now,” says another.

Another woman reports that she was about to knock on the guy’s door, but she caught herself.

The last woman we saw in the experiment, the one who had heroically rapped on both doors simultaneously with gusto, tells the camera, “I’ve gotten a lot of the assumptions that, ‘That’s probably the assistant of the person that owns that business,’ when I was going in to meet [people], and it’s like, ‘No, it’s me.’”

Indeed, women are often mistaken for the help instead of the boss, a problem that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg attributes to a culture “which teaches all of us—women and men—that men should achieve and women should support others,” Sandberg once told Quartz at Work reporter Leah Fessler, adding, “The truth is that everyone should achieve and everyone should support others.”

And more women-led startups should be funded if investors hope to make the best possible returns. As we recently reported, there’s ample data showing that startups founded or cofounded by women outperform male-founded startups over time. Why? Because they’re founded by women.

The Uber Pitch video doesn’t just highlight a key piece of the debate about women in leadership. It suggests that cultural change is possible, that it’s perhaps slowly taking hold, and that venture capital money ought to pay attention.