Gender Equality

‘Cloning’ does not explain the lack of women at the top

If you’re a modern Rip Van Winkle, you haven’t missed much when it comes to the presence of women in top leadership. In fact, you’d probably have to extend your siesta for another 70 years if you’d like to wake up to a society with equal opportunities for men and women.

Is change so slow because leaders clone themselves, as recently suggested? Maybe, but new research shows that women would be hiring men for those positions, too.

It may be tempting to think that the lack of women in leadership will inevitably change. The majority of students are women, so all we have to do is wait. The evidence suggests otherwise:

In Sweden, 61% of their university graduates were women in 1978. By 2010, that generation of women occupied 17% of corporate leadership positions. In 2008, women were taking 64% of Swedish degrees. Statisticians project that in 2040 only 18% of top leaders will be women.

Spain has seen greater changes in its student population. In 1976, women were 32% of Spanish graduates. By 2010, those women made up 6% of Spain’s leaders. In Spain in 2008, 60% of the degrees awarded went to women. What do the projections show? In 2040, we expect to see 11% of corporate leadership positions in Spain occupied by women.

See here why Spanish professors are sexist

Waiting will not change the game. In fact, researchers calculate that with current practices left intact, the percentage of women professors at a North American research university will never exceed 34%, given that women leave academia at a higher rate than men. The same study argues that if we intervene to force half of all hirings to be women, we’ll see 43% women faculty after nearly 50 years. In fact, if they hire only women, it will still take over a decade to reach parity.

The conclusion is inevitable: increasing the number of women at the bottom leads to a glacial crawl towards gender balance at the top.

If waiting is not destined to fix our gender imbalance, what can? To answer that question, we have to know the causes of the problem, and that’s where I think a recent study is interesting but mistaken.

The article reports on interviews with a number of women in university leadership positions. Those women raised the possibility of “cloning” as an explanation for hiring disproportionately many men. “One pointed out that: ‘many of the selections are made by white-haired, ageing, middle-class men’.”

While the urge to explain the exclusion and discrimination is understandable, the cloning hypothesis is built on a spurious correlation.

A growing body of research demonstrates that our ability to evaluate others is affected by attitudes and stereotypes that impact us in ways we do not see. We suffer from implicit bias.

One of the most important findings in study after study is that women and men alike favour men in hiring situations. There is no statistical difference between the likelihood that a man or a woman responsible for a hiring process will favour a man. They both do it.

So, on the one hand, it is likely that the men making decisions are favouring men. On the other hand, women would do the same.

Related story: Sex is making research better

Cloning is not the explanation, even if the results of hiring processes will spuriously have that appearance when men are responsible. Rather, the explanation is pure and unadulterated favouritism towards men, regardless of who does the hiring.

One important consequence of this is that we cannot expect the promotion of women to positions of power to solve gender imbalances on its own.

Our urge to be unfair is deep but unconscious. Our actions are implicit and invisible to us. Our discrimination is rarely intended. But it’s there. It holds women back and it damages society.

Fairness will be achieved only by interventions. And if we want to enjoy the intelligence and skill of the entire population, if we believe that diversity adds value – that it’s not only right, but smart – then interventions are the only fair response.

This article appeared first in The Guardian, under the same title.

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more



  • Donald Merritt says:

    Women had 100% of babies. What we must do is make women stop having babies so men get a chance.
    100% women breast feed babies. Lets inject women so their breasts dry up so men can breast feed babies.
    100 % of men who have sex with women insert themselves. Lets lop off the man’s genitalia.
    There now were all equal.
    Now the human race will disappear. No matter how clever man can be they can also be so stupid. For those who are unaware, and it appears to be those who are supposed to be the cleverest are the most stupid, women and men ARE DIFFERENT. Yes odd I know but we ARE DIFFERENT. A bit like black and white is different and so on.

    • Curt Rice says:

      The benefits of gender balance in the workplace, Don, are built in part on differences between men and women. They bring different perspectives to processes, which enhances the quality of those processes and the associated decision making processes. And cultural differences between men and women leads to variation in management styles and more. These are some of the reasons the pursuit of gender balance is important. It’s also the right thing to do. If men and women can equally pursue a particular job, then they should be evaluated according the same criteria, just to take one example. You won’t find arguments on this blog claiming that men and women are not different. For those who want to contribute with comments from different perspectives, rational debate is welcome. Just for your future reference, you are sliding towards unacceptable irrationality. I understand that you’re angry, but I’m more concerned to elicit ideas than emotions, so ease up on the violent suggestions if you want to stick around here, ok.

      • Thank you for this intelligent answer to a strange comment! Keeps me wonder how we ever can have this leadership conversation in a way that men do not feel excluded. With Tiara international LLC we initiate al kinds of dialogues between women especially to discover our own blind spots. With that we hoop to help organisations to make interventions that actually provide what women need to take and stay in top positions. We f.i. have developed a mentor program together with a client that of course include men in the execution of the program. There is still a lot to do around that issue. We say: it is not a gender issue, it is a leadership issue.

  • Sharon says:

    Maybe, just maybe, all that many women don’t pursue leadership. How is it possible to write an article of women in the workplace and totally avoid the subject of childbearing and childrearing? I suppose you’ll say it shouldn’t make a difference because child minding in a perfect world would be shared 50-50 by mothers and fathers. But it doesn’t work that way. Men and women ARE different, and part of that difference is in our attitude to children and babies. Granted that men love their own babies as much as the baby’s mother. But I’ve never ever seen men smiling and cooing and basically going all soft and sweet at the sight of a stranger’s baby — and a lot of women do. A lot of us simply like babies, and very often, we want to care for them ourselves, and raise them ourselves, and find this extremely satisfying; and even if we work as well, we prioritise caring for our babies and children over aiming for the top. Not everyone sees the top as a great place to be. And not everyone sees child raising as an inferior option.

    • Curt Rice says:

      Hi Sharon — Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Of course I agree with you that children should be exposed more or less equally to both their parents (when they are lucky enough to have two parents in their lives). Sometime when you get the chance to visit Norway, you might enjoy visiting a day care center and watching the men smile and coo. But that’s of course just an impression, and the real issue here is more about what you say in your first line. Why don’t women pursue leadership? You may very well be right that there are differences. But, my article is about women taking the last step. For example, in academia, it’s about making the step from associate professor to full professor, or to dean, or to university president. People often have grown children by the time this stage gets reached. So, why would it be the case that women stop where they’re almost to the top? In the article I was replying to, they mention a study in which lots of women go through a training program to be qualified for top leadership positions, but then they get hired in far different numbers than men do. So, what I’d like to ask you is what about the cases where women actually do pursue leadership? Do you think that when they are equally qualified they should have an equal chance at those jobs? If you do think that, then what needs to be changed to make it happen. Because it’s not happening. Women are punished every time they turn around in their workplaces just for being women. When I say that, I’m synthesizing research results that I write about quite a bit on this blog. The ones who do pursue leadership and who are qualified still don’t get the jobs. What should we do about that?

  • Andrew says:

    I’ll start by saying women make just as good bosses as men, and I’d be happy with more women in “top” jobs. In fact a woman is the director of the company I’m currently working at and she seems to be doing a great job.

    Secondly, I agree with Sharon. For women, even before they’ve had their own children, their eyes will dilate and they go all soft at they site of babies. For men, this doesn’t happen until after they’ve had their own – this is science and has been show in tests. Also, the women I know who’ve taken time out of work to look after there own children, wouldn’t want it any other way, they’re certainly not keen on going back to a full time career once their children are in school… Even if they do, it’s hard to compete with someone else who hasn’t taken 5+ years out of their career.
    I’ve worked in computers for 22 years. In most places I’ve worked we’ve tried really hard to get more women into these technical position, even from other jobs in the business, but they’re just not interested. They’re interested in using computers to do a task, but they’re not interested in computers for the sake of being interested in computers – they switch off (there are rare exceptions). Men a women do have different inner drives and interests…
    We should all have equal opportunities to go for the jobs we’re interest in, whether it’s a man whose interested in female dominated professions or women interested in male dominated professions. You’ll find there’s just as much discrimination both ways. It’s a shame the focus is only on women becoming directors. What about the man who wants to become a nurse or work with children. What about the woman who wants to become an engineer.
    For me personally I wouldn’t want to be a director, getting to the top is all to “political” and cut-throat for me. It’s no coincidence that one survey showed that Business leaders are four times more likely to be psychopaths than the rest of the general population…

    • Curt Rice says:

      If I understand you correctly, I think there’s a lot of merit in what you’re saying. It’s not so much that 50/50 is the goal, but rather that the sex of an individual employee in and of itself is not an impediment to advancement. With big numbers, I would expect that in many fields, this would lead to a much different proportion of men and women in leadership positions.
      As for men’s interests, there definitely are issues there, too, as you note. In Norway, for example, men are substantially under-represented in psychology, and this is recognized as a problem and measures are being discussed. Nursing is another area in which society would presumably have need for both men and women and, here too, measures are under consideration. It all moves slowly, but there it is.

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