Several aspects of the gender equality issue are sure to provoke people. But particularly the debate on gender quotas is a red flag. Just the slightest hint that employees and job candidates could be evaluated on anything other than their competencies and merits sends tempers flying.
The objection is usually that we must be sure to choose the most competent people, and gender should not be a criterion. And entirely in line with this, the Danish political party Liberal Alliance this weekend argued in favour of scrapping the current political requirement of gender equality targets based on the conviction that the decisive factor for getting a job must be the individual’s qualifications. The correct response to the general concern and the argument of Liberal Alliance is ‘yes’ and that is precisely why we have to take an active stance on gender discrimination.
“Even a few hours’ study of some of the research on how we all subconsciously assess men and women differently will reveal that the belief that we are seen as equal irrespective of gender is about as valid as saying that the emperor was fully clothed when H.C. Andersen had him parade through town.”
Even a few hours’ study of some of the research on how we all subconsciously assess men and women differently will reveal that the belief that we are seen as equal irrespective of gender is about as valid as saying that the emperor was fully clothed when H.C. Andersen had him parade through town.
We tell ourselves that we have woven a system of the finest thread where your competencies and results alone decide how far you move up the career ladder. We are so fond of this notion that we feel obliged to constantly remind ourselves that we must of course never compromise on this rational and fair assessment of the individual in favour of the equality issue.
But the truth is that if choices were really made exclusively on competencies and results, we would have seen a different gender balance at the top of the power hierarchy long ago. We would have given women and men equal opportunities to unfold their talents in the professional world. For gender discrimination is not only an issue in top management. From day one when women set foot on the career ladder, they are weighed down by a lot of extra baggage compared to men. At the same time we sit at the top on the lookout for more women to promote and cannot comprehend why more women have not climbed more rungs.
The way we evaluate and assess women’s potential, competencies and performance is crucial to their career advancement.
In 2014, an MIT research team documented that start-up companies represented by men stand a 60% greater chance of receiving funding from investors. Moreover, the experiment showed that when precisely the same business idea and sales speech was made by a male voice, 68% of the investors recommended it, while only 32% backed the business idea when it was promoted by a female voice.
Another convincing example comes from a research team from Yale. In 2012, the team received replies from 127 science professors on how they would regard newly graduated candidates for the position as laboratory manager. All applications were identical except that half the applicants were named Jennifer and the other half John. On a competency scale from 1 to 7, John scored 4 and Jennifer 3.3. More of the professors were willing to hire John for their own laboratory and they also preferred mentoring him to Jennifer. Lastly, the professors offered John a starting salary that was on average 14% higher than what they offered Jennifer.
Some years ago Frank Flynn, professor at Stanford Business School, twisted a case study about a successful female entrepreneur by the name of Heidi Roizen. He replaced Heidi’s name by Howard and handed out the case with Heidi’s and Howard’s name, respectively, to groups of students. And this little sex-change experiment produced a remarkable result. When the students described their impressions, they were much harder on the real-life Heidi Roizen than on Howard Roizen. They believed Heidi to be as efficient and competent as Howard, but they did not like her. They would not to the same extent hire her or work with her. They saw Heidi as more hungry for power and self-promoting than Howard.
Perhaps we could shrug off this example in the Nordics as it was made in the US, and we believe things to be very different in the more gender equality-conscious Nordic countries.
Alas, this illusion was severely challenged when the above example was recreated in Norway with a career story involving Hanna and Hans. The slightly different results relative to the US experiment did, however, show that women in Norway were less biased in their assessment of career men and women. Norwegian men, on the other hand, were much more positive towards career men than career women. 75% of the men liked Hans, while only 24% liked Hanna. 75% of the men wanted to work with Hans, while only 36% wanted to work with Hanna. They were much less inclined to be her mentor, they did not believe she was an equally good leader and they did not feel like having a beer with her after work. And compared to Hans they even saw her as a poorer parent. The survey, conducted by Gaustad and Raknes, was called “Menn som ikke liker karrierekvinner” (men who do not like career women).
Another example is the well known survey where the New York Philharmonic Orchestra held blind auditions behind a curtain, thus increasing the share of female musicians selected in the recruitment process from 10% to 45%.
There is no shortage of research showing gender discrimination. The documentation has been available for a long time and continues to flow in a steady stream from the leading international business schools and universities.
“After all, most of us would prefer to watch and partake in sports games where equal rules apply to both teams and the referee acts accordingly.”
Unfortunately, there also seems to be an unbudging reluctance to acknowledge the challenges. I do actually understand the urge to put your head in the sand like an ostrich and deny the existence of gender discrimination. In many ways it seems so last century that we have to keep struggling with gender equality issues. And I think that the resistance is partly based on a widespread wish that meritocracy actually worked. After all, most of us would prefer to watch and partake in sports games where equal rules apply to both teams and the referee acts accordingly. We wish that we were actually primarily judged on our merits and competencies and assessed others in the same fair view. We get angry when somebody proves that this is not the case. That meritocracy is largely an illusion based on a narrow set of norms within different categories.
There should be enough documentation to stop discussions on whether or not we have a gender equality challenge – plenty of data to be able to reason that just because we are not aware of the problem; it does not mean that it does not exist. Instead of clinging to an illusion, we should let go of the resistance and work constructively towards finding solutions in order to get what we actually dream about. And if we cannot figure out how to change our behaviour ourselves, we have to resort to measures that will ensure fair rules of the game. Whether such measures are quotas, targets or something more effective; it’s just a question of choosing tools that work so that we can move forward.