Board gender quotas ‘boost female numbers across senior ranks’

Despite backlash fears, quotas aimed at increasing proportion of women on academic boards can aid gender equality more broadly, study suggests

November 9, 2023
Dance circus production at Canary Wharf of women top of scaffolding and men climbing below
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Gender quotas for academic boards are likely to contribute to greater female representation in the upper ranks of academia, a study has found.

The research, led by Aliza Forman-Rabinovici of Israel’s University of Haifa, indicates that gender quotas not only achieve their immediate goal of increasing the number of women on boards and committees but also appear to improve gender parity in senior professorship positions and academic staff.

Using data from 25 countries that was collected by the European Commission between 2003 and 2018, Dr Forman-Rabinovici and researchers from Tel Aviv University found that countries with quotas in place had an average of about 40 per cent of women on their academic boards, compared with just over 30 per cent in nations without quotas.

A similar if less pronounced pattern was visible in senior professorship roles: 28 per cent were held by women in quota countries, compared with just over 25 per cent in non-quota countries, according to the paper published in Studies in Higher Education.

The increased female representation among senior faculty should not be attributed solely to quotas, Dr Forman-Rabinovici noted. “Quotas are increasing the rate of women on boards, which is correlating with an increase of women elsewhere [in academia]. But some of that increase is also just a factor of time,” she said. “It’s probably the result of a lot of sociological and institutional factors.”

More research was needed to “build effective policy”, Dr Forman-Rabinovici said, noting that the study covered only European countries over a 15-year period. “But we do have a policy that we see is not causing harm and probably is causing good,” she said. “It’s there to address a systematic and institutional inequality, so we shouldn’t shy away from [quotas].”

Women continue to be under-represented in the most senior academic roles in Europe: according to the European Commission’s 2021 She Figures report, less than a quarter of higher education institutions were led by women in 2019, while just over three in 10 board members were women. But the efficacy of gender quotas has been the subject of debate in recent years, with some raising concerns that they could spark backlash or prove counterproductive.

A 2019 paper from Sciences Po posited that the introduction of quotas on university recruitment committees had prompted a male backlash that resulted in the hiring of fewer female academics. The following year, the German Research Foundation advised against strict quotas, warning that they could result in women being overburdened with administrative work, hindering their research output.

The new study, however, found “little evidence” of a backlash, although Dr Forman-Rabinovici said careful policy design was essential to avoid inadvertently impeding female academics’ careers.

“Other studies show that women are overloaded in academia compared to men: they take on more teaching; they take on more service positions; students are actually more likely to come to female faculty members for emotional support,” she said.

“If we’re going to create a policy that means that women have to serve on more boards in order to meet this quota, we have to take into account that we have to reduce their workload in other places. Otherwise, we’re going to just perpetuate more inequality, more overburdening of women and make it more difficult for women to advance.”

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