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.
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.
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.
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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.