Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Quota Question

Are quotas useful? The answer to this question depends on what you are trying to achieve. If the problem is defined by the statement ‘there are too few women at a particular level or in a particular occupation’ then imposing sanctions, or threatening to impose sanctions, on those who fail to meet a quota will increase the number of women, provided there are a sufficient number of suitable qualified women to fill these positions.

In Norway companies were given six years to raise the percentage of women on boards to 40%. Some think that the Norwegian experience shows that the talent was there. It was simply a matter of identifying it. (‘Quotas for women on the board: do they work?’, The Sunday Times 8 June 2008, see also this comment at 20-First. However, a study by Amy Dittmar and Kenneth Ahern of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan showed that the performance of firms dropped as the percentage of women on the board increased. The study found that this was due to a shortage of appropriately qualified women so that boards had to appoint inexperienced women in order to meet their quota. (See also ‘Just Don’t Call Them Gender Targets: The Need to Move Diversity Hiring into the Open’ at Thanks to Suzanne Doyle-Morris for alerting me to this post via LinkedIn.)

Another area where quotas operate is in the electoral process, for example, nine European countries have legislated candidate quotas and twenty-two have voluntary political party quotas (source: In an ideal world we would not have interventions such as all women candidate lists, but we do not live in an ideal world. A representative democracy is entitled to take steps to ensure that it actually is representative. What about the ‘best person for the job’ argument? There is evidence that voters use heuristics such as appearance to judge the competence of candidates and that this can lead to gender bias. There is also some evidence people rely less on gender stereotypes when they are familiar with female politicians. [‘Inferences of Competence from Faces Predict Election Outcomes’, Todorov et al. Science 10 June 2005:Vol. 308. no. 5728, pp. 1623 – 1626; ‘A neural basis for the effect of candidate appearance on election outcomes’, Spezio et al. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci 3, 344-352; Chiao JY, Bowman NE, Gill H (2008); ‘The Political Gender Gap: Gender Bias in Facial Inferences that Predict Voting Behavior’, PLoS ONE 3(10): e3666. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0003666; ‘Powerful Women: Does Exposure Reduce Bias?’, Beaman et al. MIT Department of Economics Working Paper No. 08-14 1 August 2008.] It seems reasonable to have some sort of intervention to accelerate progress.

Could quotas work in academia? Currently quotas are illegal in the UK under the Sex Discrimination Act (1975), since the existence of a quota implies that women would be appointed in order to meet the quota. If quotas were legal how would they operate? Would the quotas apply to staff employed or to new appointments? If the former the quotas would have to take into account the current levels of women in universities as otherwise institutions could be penalized for actions that occurred before the quotas were set, which seems unfair. If the latter, what would be the effect? Suppose turnover is 5% per year (since a career as a permanent academic lasts about thirty years, we would expect about 3% per year but there will also be contributions due to transfers between institutions and expansion). If half of new appointees are women then, assuming no women leave via retirement or transfer, the percentage of women among academics would rise at 2.5 percentage points per year, which may not sound much but a department that achieved this could get from 25% women to 50% women in ten years. Would the quotas apply to institutions as a whole, with institutions developing their own plans to meet them, which might encourage them to focus on subjects where recruiting women was easier, or on a subject by subject basis? The former seems unlikely given that 48% of lecturers in Higher Education in the UK in 2007-08 were female (HESA press release). If the quotas are set on a subject by subject basis, what form would they take – five out of ten appointments, ten out of twenty? How would the quotas be enforced? What penalties would there be for failing to comply?

What would the advantages be? Clearly, quotas could be effective over a timescale of ten years or so. What would the disadvantages be? Many women would be opposed because they want to be appointed for their ability not their sex. Many men would feel unfairly treated. Some women already find that any recognition they receive is belittled on the grounds that they were recognised for their gender not their achievements because men believe, despite the evidence, that women are unfairly advantaged. Quotas are a top-down measure, which is culturally inappropriate for universities. Many academics would devote their energies to finding ways around them.

So, quotas would be effective if the primary concern is simply to increase the numbers of women. However, there are a number of significant drawbacks.

Personally, though quotas may be useful in other areas, I am opposed to quotas in academia. I would want to be offered a job because the selection panel believed I was the best fit to the requirements of the position, not because they need a woman to meet a quota. Likewise, I think that being short-listed for interview so that some administrator can tick the ‘woman interviewed’ box is a waste of my time, and of the selection panel’s. I think there are better, less divisive ways of achieving increases in the number of women in permanent academic posts, such as the STRIDE project at the University of Michigan.

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