A new academic study (1) is challenging one of the central policies of gender diversity -boardroom quotas for women. They have been the central plank of the push for diversity in business, not just to promote more diversity in the boardroom, but also to encourage it below the board.
This study challenges this. It argues(2) that mandating more females on boards actually reduces diversity, because men don’t like them and take revenge on other women below the board. Apparently, men respond by increasing their prejudice against women below the boardroom. They write job adverts that deter women from applying by using male-orientated language. Female employment in these companies actually falls – a direct result of mandating more females at board-level.
This is pretty explosive for gender policy. Boardroom quotas are allegedly counter-productive because men are taking revenge on other women. It is pretty damming on men generally.
It sounds pretty incredible, but is it really happening?
The three academic authors are based in Canada and the USA, and used data from both North America and continental Europe (not UK), largely using multiple regression(3). Specifically, the study looked at female employment in 32 European countries from 2008-2020, and found that the introduction of board gender quotas seems to been followed by lower female employment in those companies.
To try to explain how this happens, the study analyses job adverts to see if companies discriminate by using language that discourages female candidates. However to do this, it looks at job adverts in California, USA. Yes, they looked at Californian job adverts to explain European employment trends!
This language analysis is, according to the study, a ‘low-cost’ tool(4) to identify discrimination. Apparently adverts that use masculine words deter female applicants. This seems reasonable – an advert asking for ‘tough’ applicants willing to do ‘dirty’ work might appeal less to women than men. However, the words they identify as masculine, and therefore deterring to women, include; ‘analytical’, ‘decisive’, ‘independent’, ‘individual’, ‘intellectual’, ‘logic’, ‘opinion’, and ‘principle’. It’s not just women who will find this list (5) at best idiosyncratic and at worst insulting.
The study finds that Californian companies that were required to employ at least one female director used 4-5% fewer ‘feminine’ words in job adverts. This means certain words appear slightly less frequently; words such as honesty, understanding, loyalty, commitment and yield(6). Withholding those words is apparently part of a deliberate plot by men to take revenge for that lone female on the board.
Male behaviour gets worse. The study identifies ‘a significant drop in the provision of female-friendly amenities and benefits when firms have more female directors.’ What’s more, those companies suffered a significant increase in gender-related labour penalties.
The one piece of good news is that the study finds that a company having female top executives and in particular a female COO7 does reduce the apparent discrimination against women.
The study raises two big questions for diversity:
- Do board-diversity quotas damage female employment lower down the organisation?
- Do men consciously seek revenge for being forced to have a woman on the board?
Do men in significant numbers decide to take revenge on women generally because of a single piece of positive discrimination in the boardroom?
Firstly, do most managers bother very much about who sits in the boardroom? Maybe some idiotic men might want to keep women out of their workplace, but I struggle to believe that large numbers would do this just because of a quota imposed on a distant and remote boardroom. It all seems a lot of bother and hard work to achieve nothing. If this were such a big global drive by men, wouldn’t you expect to be able to point to examples of it happening in the real world and being discussed on Twitter, or even LinkedIn?
Secondly, the mechanism identified – of discouraging women applying for jobs by using certain words – seems quite a stretch. When you find that the words that do all this damage are slightly more frequent use of ones like ‘analytical’, ‘opinion’ and ‘principle’, the supposed mechanism looks even more tendentious. However, this is a reminder that promoting diversity and inclusion means we need to watch our language to avoid inadvertent discrimination, especially in job advertisements.
This paper takes a really important point – do board diversity quotas help diversity below the boardroom – and turns it into a game of ‘hunt the correlation’. I may not know much about statistics, but I do know that you can’t prove something about European employment by looking at California job adverts. By just crunching numbers on their computers, are business academics avoiding the real world and finding out what really happens.
Meanwhile, the question remains as to whether greater board diversity is actually helping diversity below board level? My worry is still that the current focus on the board for diversity targeting is now a smokescreen to avoid working on the real issue of diversity in management and executive levels. You don’t need to believe this study to understand that we need to focus on the executive ranks to drive true long-term diversity.
More thoughts on the boardroom and diversity in my book: ‘Behind Closed Doors. The Boardroom: How to Get In, Get On and Make a Difference’.
1. ‘Does Mandating Women on Corporate Boards Backfire?’ – Bo Bian, Jingjing Li and Kai Li (2023)
2. It is not clear whether the study has been peer-reviewed.
3. It has been a long time since I studied statistics, so I am not qualified to assess whether they have used them correctly, but you do wonder. In any case, they have also used some obscure data to draw strong conclusions, even if the statistical methodology were strictly robust.
4. It means they don’t have to leave their offices.
5. The word list is taken from another academic study, Gaucher et al (2011).
6. The word ‘yield’ is itself ambiguous as it means both a return on investment and giving way.
7. They may mean more an HR Director in UK terms.