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.

The power of Diversity

Returning to free-lance work after a year-long (interim) assignment, I also took some time for reading.  More particularly I have read ‘The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies’, 2007 by Scott Page.

In the prologue Page claims his book will offer a logic of diversity and show that diversity improves performance and, under certain conditions, trumps ability.  It takes the first part of the book to, quite convincingly, argue and illustrate that cognitive differences improve the group’s capacity to solve problems.  Cognitive differences are the basis for different predictive models. Page shows that, what he calls “a diverse crowd of models” always outperforms a single expert, even if the individual models that are part of the crowd are not as good as the experts’ model.  For this claim to hold, it is required that the crowd members have at least some relevant abilities to contribute towards solving the problem, and that the problem the group deals with, is rather complex. Interestingly, these conditions are relevant to most management teams, hiring committees, juries and boards of directors.

Page’s claim is based on a link between cognitive differences and different predictive models. Predictive models can be complex or very simple (“red cars go fast” is the outcome of a – not so accurate – predictive model that links a car’s color to its speed).  Critics of his book say Page does not adequately treats the issue of communication within his “diverse crowd of models”.  Indeed, he does note that different (cognitive) perspectives on the same reality can lead to quite some miscommunication, but most of the time he seems to abstract from such problems.

While diverse predictive models are beneficial for the accuracy of predictions and create “wise crowds”, a major complication arises when these crowds are to actually decide on problems. This is because of their diverse personal preferences. These preferences are dealt with in the third part of the book. Page argues that members of a group tend to make different choices because they pursue different goals (different fundamental preferences) or they think – on the basis of their individual predictive models – that certain goals are best achieved in specific, different ways (different instrumental preferences). Too much diversity of preferences may lead to circular outcomes of decision-making processes, misrepresentation or strategic voting and agenda manipulation.  Agenda manipulation is more of a risk when groups have diverse fundamental preferences because there are fewer incentives to be open about the agendas.

So much for diversity you would say. Nice for predicting outcomes, bad for decision-making.  But that would be too quick a conclusion.  Diverse preferences create problems but also have benefits. The fact that diverse fundamental preferences are linked to diverse perspectives, a major ingredient of cognitive diversity, mitigates their negative influence.  Diverse perspectives are very beneficial to problem solving and innovative capacities of groups and make the group into a “wise crowd”.  Members of the group can use the same problem solving technique (f.e. rank cases based on a hypothesis about a proxy for a single variable and test cases for their variable of choice until they are convinced they have a solid top 5). At the same time their preferences determine their perspective, the variable they use to rank those cases. This will lead to each having a different top-5 pick.    A benefit of their diverse perspectives is that the group will not likely stick to a sub-optimal solution: what is good for one is not good enough for another group member and they will continue to improve on solutions (provided they communicate well…..)

So what is there to be learned from all this? To sum up Pages conclusions:

  • Cognitively diverse societies, cities and teams perform better than homogeneous ones – diversity produces benefits
  • Particularly fundamental preference diversity creates problems – people do not get along and public goods tend to be underprovided

A – likely – combination of cognitive diversity and fundamental preference diversity in a group helps to produce better outcomes, but it also produce more conflict.

So theoretically diversity has benefits and downsides. Do these actually add-up in real life?  What is the net result? What does the evidence tell?

To look at the empirical “evidence” you need to be able to link the diversity we can see with real cognitive diversity. When we talk about diversity we normally mean “identity diversity”. People differ in terms of age, cultural and ethnic background, race, gender.  Cognitive diversity is related to, but certainly not equal to identity diversity.  Identities influence experience and opportunities, which in turn influence cognitive toolboxes, but assuming any linear relation would overly simplify the connections. And, the connections depend on the problem.

Reviewing a vast collection of empirical studies about identity diversity, Page claims they support that, when diverse identities are connected to cognitive differences that are relevant to the problem, diversity tends to have net benefits.   His review of the empirical evidence ranges from studies related to firms and organizations, to studies of societies that look at linkages between ethnic and linguistic diversity of countries and their economic growth and history. For example, one study referred shows that within the same company, branch offices with more gender diversity generated more revenues etc.  Page refers to a considerable variety of studies. Most of his evidence fits his model, not such a surprise, but it is indeed impressive.  Too much to summarize here.  He also includes interesting side-tracks: he reasons that the European Union is a way to harness diversity to produce benefits. Interesting perspective indeed.

The book comes with a warning that it contains a lot of mathematics and I did struggle at times. But then again, I find it equally daunting to read about diversity’s  dialectically constitutive relationship to the discursive structure…  (see call for abstracts, Critical Management Studies Conference 2009).

I will stick to freelancing for organizations and networks.  Organizations can be supported to take some risks: there is no need to always recruit look-a-likes into their management teams, committees and boards of directors.  Teams may need support to draw on the differences and allow them to inspire creativity and better predictions. And at the same time you can unpack and discuss with them their diverse preferences, separating goals from means. Teams can prevent diverse preferences becoming a source of conflict and make them generate new perspectives on complex problems.  In his book, Page sometimes goes into details that I find hard to digest and sometimes he cuts corners where I dwindle in doubt, but I like the way he carefully un-wraps diversity, very insightful.

hello 2010

I am starting off 2010 with my very own blog. The title of my blog is derived from a well known saying by Yogi Berra: “If you do not know where you are going you’ll end up some place else”.  For those not familiar, Yogi Berra was a US baseball player. His often quoted statements tend to mystify the obvious.  They always trigger a surprising perspective on things.

I like looking at the obvious from different perspectives.  Like asking myself how useful it is to know where you going and what can be the value of ending-up some place else? For me appreciating diversity and organizational change is about knowing where you want to go, and indeed one has to aim not to end-up some place else.  But to get there you need to keep the road open:  diversity, change and learning need space.  And then again, eventually you may end-up some place else after all …..

on a blog for example. The world of blogging is new to me.  I was raised with grammophones and typewriters and I am what they nowadays call a digital migrant. But like any migrant I will try to make it work for me.