2 ways quotas for women raise quality

Curt Rice. (Foto: Tom Benjaminsen)

Curt Rice. (Foto: Tom Benjaminsen)

Av Curt Rice, professor ved UiT og leder av Komité for kjønnsbalanse i forskning

Quotas, it is said, inevitably lower quality. Quotas lead to hiring a person who otherwise wouldn’t get hired. It’s obvious, isn’t it, that if she were good enough, she would get the job on her own? Quotas take situations that are fair — tough, sure, but fair nonetheless — and make them unfair. Surely you don’t think sex makes a difference in how well you do your work!

Those are the attitudes I bump into when I talk about quotas — the most extreme form of intervention in hiring processes. Those attitudes, however, fly in the face of recent research. It turns out that there are good reasons to think quotas actually do the opposite: they raise quality.

The impediments to fair and quality-based hiring processes are many. An increasing literature shows that we have implicit biases which keep us from making objective evaluations of the work done by men and women; we inevitably consider sex when we evaluate individuals. In the essay Quotas, microaggression and meritocracy, I put it like this:

«Academics hold tightly to the view that progress in our system is meritocratic. Hiring, decisions about article publication, citation of the work of our peers, the awarding of research funds, raises, promotions and more are determined rationally, we believe, as a result of the objective evaluation of clearly stated requirements for advancement. An increasing body of research, however, makes it clear that equally qualified men and women are viewed differently when hiring, that women have less access than men to positions of prominence in article authorship, that citation patterns reflect the sex of the author, that prestigious funding agencies have systems which set the bar lower for men than for women, and that the CVs of men and women are evaluated differently for promotion (Vernos, 2012; Donald, 2013; European Research Council, 2012; Maliniak, Powers and Walter, 2013; West, Jacquet, King, Correll and Bergstrom, 2013; Ministry of Science and Innovation, 2011; Wenneras and Wold, 1997).»

Can you really recognize quality?
A newly published article, Elite male faculty in the life sciences employ fewer women, shows that part of the problem with increasing the number of women faculty in the natural sciences is found in the employment patterns in the very most prestigious labs.

This article shows a difference between the behavior of male and female heads of labs. Earlier simulation studies could not distinguish between the behavior of men and women; the new paper is a study of actual data gathered after the fact and as such is messier with more variables that cannot be controlled for. Its results are an invitation to more research: The absence of a difference between men and women when it comes to implicit bias is clearly a topic that we are not yet done studying.

Independent of that, what is clear from any of these studies is our commitment to quality: We intensely want to believe that we are capable of recognizing quality when we see it. But study after study shows us that it’s not so simple. In many situations, we are simply not up to the task. We need to acknowledge this and to imagine processes which in fact do not leave us on our own. We need processes that support our quest for selecting the best. This is part of a conceptualization of human capital and many such processes are available to us.

I’d like to take the most controversial one, however, and put it on the table with what I hope will be a fresh perspective.

How quotas raise quality
Quotas can take the form of insisting that a particular position go to a member of an under-represented group, or that a particular percentage of a group must be made up of members of particular sub-groups.

One common objection to quotas is that they are unfair. But quotas do not get introduced in situations that already are fair. They are a tool to pursue fairness — to correct unfairness.

The other common objection is that quotas necessarily lead to a reduction in quality. If you use a quota, it is said, you will hire someone who isn’t otherwise good enough. If you insist that companies put women on their boards, we used to hear in Norway, you’ll lower the overall quality. That’s the stereotype.

But research suggests that this is exactly wrong. Research shows us that quotas can raise quality. Everyone who is a friend of gender balance work needs to learn these arguments.

When anecdotes become anecdata
The stereotype is a classic case of basing conclusions on something other than research. It bases conclusions on logic – bad logic, it turns out – and stories. These stories  – “we had a woman president at our university once, but it didn’t really work out” – get repeated so often.

In fact, they are anecdotes that with sufficient repetition start to get treated as data. We might call them anecdata. (See also Anecdata: How McKinsey’s story become Sheryl Sandberg’s fact.)

Anecdata are not useful as we try to build our knowledge. Three studies on quotas show something different.

A simulation published in Science in 2012 shows that affirmative action attracts more highly qualified women. The use of affirmative action measures in this study – including, but not limited to quotas – leads to a change in the applicant pool. In fact, the inclusion of some affirmative action measure in the announcement of conditions had the effect of attracting more highly qualified women to the extent that it was almost never necessary to actually use the affirmative action measure to get the desired gender balance.

Up with zippers
In 2013, Sweden’s Research Institute of Industrial Economics published a study called Gender quotas and the crisis of the mediocre man: Theory and evidence from Sweden.

This paper examines the effects of quotas on the lists of political parties. Lists of candidates for elections alternative between men and women, so that there is a “zipper quota” on the group giving 50% men and 50% women.

The authors evaluate group competency and demonstrate that the zipper quota raises the overall competency of the groups and, in particular, it raises the competency of the group of men on the list.

Think about that.

Adding a zipper quota raises the competency of the group overall and of the group of men. What does that mean?

It means that mediocre men are being replaced by more highly qualified women. The overall compentency is raised because more highly qualified people replace lower qualified people.

And for the group of men, lower qualified men are no longer present.

In this case, research shows that a quota on the composition of a group increases the quality of that group. This is a realization of the classic argument that we need to make use of all of societies resources. And it shows that exactly the opposite of the stereotype about quotas is what actually happens. (Watch the European Gender Summit speech related to this blog entry!)

Getting the most out of human capital
Now in 2014, a new study called Socially gainful gender quotas argues from a human capital perspective the following:

«We study the impact of gender quotas on the acquisition of human capital. In the absence of quotas, women consider their chances of getting top positions to be lower than men’s. The lure of top positions induces even men of relatively low ability to engage in human capital formation, whereas women of relatively high ability do not expect to get top positions and do not therefore engage in human capital formation. Gender quotas discourage men who are less efficient in forming human capital, and encourage women who are more efficient in forming human capital. We provide a condition under which the net result of the institution of gender quotas is an increase in human capital in the economy as a whole.»

We know that we stumble in our attempts to select the best, and the obvious response to stumbling is to carry a crutch. We need help. We need interventions. And those can take many forms. But no matter what interventions we consider, it’s important to identify them based on research, and not on anecdotes, and not even on anecdata. Research is the route to knowledge.

And when we look at the research on quotas, it turns out that what we thought we knew — that they necessarily lower quality — is exactly wrong.

Both in terms of attracting stronger applicants and in terms of their impacts on groups, quotas increase quality. Period. That’s what the research tells us. What should we do with this knowledge? Quotas are the most extreme measure. And they carry other challenges — not least of all stigma for the target group. Whatever we may decide to do, however, let’s set the stereotypes aside and see what research shows about the positive effects quotas can bring for everyone.