Gender quotas and equality plans won’t work without a culture change

Susanne Täuber warns that mandatory gender diversity measures will be no more successful in the corporate world than they have been in academia unless genuine organisational transformation is achieved

December 7, 2019
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The Dutch House of Representatives has just decided in favour of a mandatory women’s quota for the supervisory directors of listed companies. Women who are supervisory directors of listed companies are enthusiastic about the move. Annemiek Roobeek, former supervisory director at ABN Amro and KLM, welcomed the quota because “we have not made any progress in the last 20 years”. This sobering conclusion can also be applied to public sector organisations such as universities.

Nevertheless, listed companies could learn a few lessons from academia. The most important is that having diversity in numbers is not the same as having an inclusive organisational culture. When minority members join organisations that give them the feeling that they can belong only when they assimilate to the majority, they will soon leave the organisation. This is called the “revolving door effect”, referring to organisations’ success in recruiting diverse employees but their failure to retain them. Genuine change is needed in the culture of an organisation to make progress on an issue such as gender diversity.

The 2019 Gender Summit’s report to the European Commission and the European Parliament highlights the prominent role of cultural change in achieving gender equality in academia, particularly regarding harassment. Sexual harassment, including general harassment and bullying behaviours, is widespread in academia.

A recent editorial in the Journal of Women’s Health reports that as much as 60 per cent to 80 per cent of the academic workforce, male and female, experience harassment. The director of the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research presented data at the summit, held in Amsterdam in October, showing that victims are reluctant to report harassment – and when they do, universities suppress reports about harassment at their institution.

Under-reporting is now seen as a massive problem in combating sexual harassment. The resulting paucity of data militates against a thorough understanding of the problem and possible remedies. It also makes it easy for universities to present harassment as individual incidents rather than as structural flaws of a male-dominated, hierarchical and highly competitive system.

This jeopardises the growing insight that equality, diversity and inclusion need a systemic approach, as noted in a recent position paper published by the League of European Research Universities. Because the system seems just fine when harassment is under-reported, perpetrators can continue bullying, intimidating and harassing.

Paradoxically, it seems that universities become more prone to harassment as a result of activities to demonstrate their commitment to gender equality. This is particularly likely when institutions make promises to please accreditation bodies or in response to societal pressure but do not genuinely value equality.

Several female academics have stressed the risk of gender-equality initiatives becoming mere box-ticking exercises and just another way to game the system.

Like a toddler declaring herself a painter and taking to the living room wallpaper with her crayons, many universities have declared themselves diverse and inclusive. But in both cases, there is little experience and not much real skill yet: universities are traditionally homogenous institutions that represent wealthy white men in particular.

The problem is that universities become highly attached to their desired image as equal, diverse and inclusive. It helps them to recruit top talent; it complies with accreditation bodies’ wishes; and it often secures additional funding. The result is a toxic dynamic. Zero-tolerance statements, codes of integrity and active bystander training schemes strengthen that image and encourage academics to complain about harassment. But when academics actually file a complaint, this threatens the institution’s image. Many academics who report harassment are treated as whistleblowers and exposed to substantial retaliation.

Because female academics are disproportionally affected by harassment, they will often suffer disproportionally from whistleblower retaliation. The practices include intimidation, bullying and framing the complainer as mentally unstable and go as far as violating academic freedom.

Managers are commonly supported by the institution’s human resources department in their efforts to silence victims of harassment, who are in effect being retraumatised by universities’ inadequate handling of such reports. Employees often develop severe mental health problems as a consequence of their experiences. They can then easily be forced to leave their institution, given that they are “not functioning”. Not surprisingly, those who witness such events will be very unlikely to ever speak up about harassment themselves; hence the massive under-reporting of harassment.

Under-reporting thwarts a sense of urgency to tackle the problem. The Dutch minister of education’s refusal to install an independent national complaints institute for harassment in academia illustrates this. The minister believes in universities’ capability to tackle the issue themselves, closing her eyes to the fact that the current academic culture has no self-cleaning powers. The widespread retaliation against those complaining about harassment is possible where cultural change has been declared without having been realised, where image trumps content, and where strong leadership to implement and enforce the necessary change is lacking.

Everybody loses as a consequence: female academics who remain victims of inequality and harassment; universities, which lose significant human capital; and society, which loses the input of some of its brightest academics.

Thus, if the gender quota in listed companies is to succeed, cultural change in the boardroom is required.

Susanne Täuber is an associate professor and Rosalind Franklin fellow in the Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Groningen.

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