Women at the top: mazes and illusions

The Norwegian law about quota for women in boards has put the focus on female leadership at the top levels.  Will these mandatory quota work or should we dismiss the whole idea of gender equality at the top as a fata morgana? Or maybe we do not really need these drastic measures?Maybe time alone will solve the problem.

Not likely.  I think the Norwegian approach may work but it is not going to be enough.

On 14 January 2011 the Flemish University Council presented its third, five–year report on Equal Opportunity and Diversity 2010 (in dutch only, sorry). Lots of good news about measures that were taken, programs that were launched, learning and change happening etc.   Emphasizing the progress made, Professor Machteld de Metsenaere, who presented the report, said action is still needed because if we do not act,  it may still take ages before gender equality would be attained.

The Belgium Institute for Equality between Women and Men observed in 2008  that of the 15 top academic officials (“rector magnificus”) in Belgium only one (1) was a women (2008:41). In Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of Belgium,  no female “rectrix” was ever elected yet.  Extrapolating the historical progress women made through the academic ranks in the past, it is said that it would take at least another century for a woman to be elected top executive of a Flemish University.

So is there is undoubtedly a problem at the top. The figures for the Flemish universities published by the Flemish University Council in this “Equal Opportunity and Diversity 2010” report suggest that women disappear on the way to the top. Comparing numbers of women in the lowest academic positions to the highest ranks (full-professor), the balance shifts from 46,5% women to just over 10% women and 90% of all full-professors being male.  So what is happening?

Actually it is not harder for women to get promoted to the top once you are at the sub-top, as compared to getting a promotion at lower levels. It is not that women move-up and then suddenly hit a glass ceiling.  Alice Eagly and Linda Carli argue that as a women it is harder to get promoted, full stop. In their interesting book “Through the Labyrinth – the truth about how women become leaders” (Boston, 2007),  Eagly and Carli show that the numbers sometimes create the illusion that the problem is at the top. In reality they suggest there is a systematic bias is consistent from the bottom to the top.

The Flemish figures on the situation at universities – and by the way,  it is not only at universities, of the top-15 Belgium NGO’s in development coöperation in 2008,  also only one (1) was headed by a women (2008:50) – any way, data on academia show that while at the entry level for academic professionals the ratio men to women is about one on one, at the next level there are 3 men for every 2 women and at top two levels there are 5 and 8 men for each single women, respectively.  This would suggest that it gets harder at each level and that the top positions – to become a full-professor –  are the hardest to get?

Eagly and Carli argue that a professional career is like a labyrinth and that women basically face a much more complicated maze than men do. It is not that as a women your career is easy at the beginning and gets more and more complicated when you move ahead, once you have advanced towards the centre of the labyrinth. The model of the glass ceiling is wrong according to Eagly and Carli. They argue that women face a more complicated career maze compared to men, right from the start.  If the maze that women have to negotiate creates more chances to make a wrong turn early on, they will get more easily lost or lose valuable time, while men may be faced with a more straight forward route or have some easily visible do-not-enter-signs that prevent them from getting inadvertently  off-track.

Gender biased career maze

In their book Eagly and Carli use an example with numbers to show that as far as discrimination is concerned there may be a constant bias ( 2007: 73).  In other words, they show that discrimination may be equally severe at all levels,  bottom and top, while at the same time that process creates the impression or illusion that the main problem of discrimination is at the highest level.  Numbers can play tricks on you (and one can trick with numbers…;).  Applying the format of their examples on the figures on the situation at the Flemish universities one could deduce that in the academic world of Flanders there is systematic discrimination with one out of each 10 men reaching a higher level, while only one out of 17 women do.

Universities – 2010
Systematic discrimination example
at all levels 1 out of each 10 men is promoted, and 1 women  out of 17
level m/f  – ratio m/f – ratio Men Women
lowest 3,3 to 3 3:3 10.000 10.000
| 4,9 to 3 5:3 1.000 588
| 7,8 to 3 9:3 100 34,6
| 15,4 to 3 15:3 10 2,0
highest 25,3 to 3 25:3 1 0,12

At the highest level women are only one out of eight full-professors at Flemish Universities, but already in the first round of promotions there is an equally strong bias, and that bias may still exist very much today, anno 2010.  Although 5:3 does not look bad, better than 8:1,  we may not have not solved the problems at the lower, entry levels yet.

Norwegian-type quota laws will help shake things up and provide inspiring role models.  And we can be pretty sure even in hundreds of years the problem will not solve itself.  We will have to address the imbalances at all levels and support women in their efforts to manage the obstacles in the complicated labyrinth they face throughout their career.