Academics should be automatically put up for promotion when roles become available in order to tackle a lack of female researchers applying for senior positions, according to the authors of a study into gender disparity in economics.
An “opt-out” system is already used in some areas of policy to nudge citizens in a preferred direction: in Wales, organ donation is opt out rather than opt in, and since 2012 employees in the UK have been automatically enrolled in workplace pension schemes.
But according to Clément Bosquet, assistant professor in economics at the University of Cergy-Pontoise near Paris and one of the co-authors of the new study, such a system could be introduced in academia.
Why there are relatively few women in senior positions is one of the most urgent questions in academia, and a key controversy is whether women, compared with men, are less likely to apply for such posts, or are less likely to be successful – or both.
Dr Bosquet said that his study breaks new ground because it was able to use French data, stretching from 1991 to 2008, to discover not only the success rates of women who did seek to gain a full economics professorship – a position that in France is decided in a national, not a university-level, competition – but also the proportion who did not bother to apply.
The research found that men were 50 per cent more likely to apply, and this discrepancy explained most of the gender gap at professorial level.
Discrimination may still have been at play, Dr Bosquet said, although the study did not find any evidence for it. It is “very hard to measure because there are many factors you can’t control for”, he explained.
Not only were women less likely to apply for university professorships – which involve a gruelling application process and often a change of city if successful, deterring women burdened with more childcare responsibilities than men – but they were equally likely to hold back from applying for promotion at institutes of the National Centre for Scientific Research, even though this is a straightforward process that does not require a move. “That was surprising,” Dr Bosquet said.
One explanation – in line with other experimental evidence – is that women are less likely to want to enter contests than men, even when there are no “costs” in doing so, such as having to move city or prepare an application, the paper suggests.
The focus, therefore, should be on getting women to apply for promotion, Dr Bosquet said. “Since women tend to apply less…we could consider saying that after 10 years, or eight, you’re automatically a candidate” for any new, higher position, he said. “You decide to opt out, not opt in. That might change how people behave,” he continued.
When a position became available, he suggested, suitable candidates within a department would automatically be put up for consideration.
The study, “Gender and Promotions: Evidence from Academic Economists in France”, forthcoming in the Scandinavian Journal of Economics, also found that having women on selection panels – a measure sometimes mooted as part of the solution to gender imbalance – made no difference to whether female academics were promoted.