French female recruitment quotas backfire after male ‘backlash’

Having more women on appointment committees has dramatically cut the number of female academics getting hired, according to analysis

January 10, 2019
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The introduction of quotas to get more women on to university recruitment committees in France has backfired and has actually led to far fewer female academics being hired, new research has revealed.

A male backlash against the equity measures is the most likely reason for the decline in female recruitment, according to analysis by Pierre Deschamps, an economist at Sciences Po in Paris.

He investigated recruitment data from 455 hiring committees across three French universities in the years before and after the introduction of the requirement for recruitment committees to draw at least 40 per cent of their membership from each gender.

Dr Deschamps’ modelling indicates that, had the quotas not been introduced, 38 per cent more women would have been hired. “That’s enormous,” he said.

Nor have the quotas yet encouraged any more women to apply for positions, according to “Gender Quotas in Hiring Committees: a Boon or a Bane for Women?”, a working paper from Sciences Po’s Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Evaluation of Public Policies.

“The reform has a large, significant and negative effect on the hiring of women,” it concludes.

This could be down to a backlash against the quotas by men, the paper says, with some academics postulating that “men discriminate against women when their identities are threatened”.

Only on hiring panels led by men did recruitment decisions swing away from female applicants after quotas were brought in, explained Dr Deschamps. “It’s men that are changing their behaviour as a reaction to the reforms,” he said.

It could also be that some men felt the quotas gave them a licence not to make any “special effort” to recruit women any more, he said. Or perhaps they felt that they were already “doing their best” but got “angry” at the imposition of quotas, he suggested.

These latest findings from France tally with earlier research using data from Italy and Spain, which also found that more women on an appointment panel did not boost female applications. Nor were women more likely to vote for female applicants – and male evaluators become less favourable to women when female evaluators joined the selection committee, according to “Does the Gender Composition of Scientific Committees Matter?”, published in the American Economic Review in 2017.

Some other countries have taken similar measures to France. In the Republic of Ireland, universities are working towards having at least 40 per cent men and 40 per cent women on appointment committees.

But Dr Deschamps argued that the lack of women in senior positions was more likely to be down to a lack of applicants, rather than the hiring process itself. “I think there might be other ways of solving the under-representation of women [than appointment committee quotas],” he said.

Christina Ullenius, former rector of Karlstad University and a founder member of the European Women Rectors Association, said that the results from France were “disappointing but not totally unexpected”. 

“It has always taken some time before my male colleagues have adjusted and regarded me as a colleague rather than an odd woman,” she said. Still, quotas on hiring committees should still be used to “shed light on the hiring process and to push for change”, in combination with training for evaluators, Professor Ullenius argued.

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Reader's comments (4)

During my time as a University Lecturer (1985-95) my applications for promotion were not viewed with equality, as the University was trying to fill more senior positions with females. Most of these females had inferior qualifications, research experience, publications, and presentations, but were promoted over males who had superior credentials. The result was that the abilities of the staff were lowered during this time, which encouraged more female staff to accept bribes from students who were not performing as well as previously - this was to ensure that the "quota" set by the Head of School to pass a high percentage of students would be met, despite the lack of knowledge exhibited by the students. The result was that when these students graduated, their work performance was "below par" compared to previous graduates, resulting in their career objectives being lost due to their lack of knowledge.
You need to recruit based solely on merit. Many years ago, I was interviewed for a position for which I was only marginally qualified (in fact, I was quite surprised to be short-listed). When I attended, everybody else there (panel & other candidates) was male. When it came to be my turn to be interviewed, one of the panel asked me why I thought I was there. I said that it looked like they wanted a female on the short-list, and their obvious discomfort proved that I was right - at which point I stood up and wished them good luck in their search for a suitable postholder and left!
It is easy to inpune the males, but having sat through various H.R. recruitment decision making meetings the harshest critics of female applicants are usually the female members, and whilst one might wish that 'sisters in academia' would support each other my observation is the opposite is often the case. Especially where the established female regards the interviewee as a threat to her status (Queen Bee Syndrome) and will be utterly ruthless to maintain her status.
Yes the Queen Bee syndrome is real. What is more real is the fact there are fewer women in Higher education academic posts than men. Now what are those institutionalised misogynist universities going to do about it. Please can we also have less female applicants from one of the male dominated religious clubs ie married to a man in the church, synagogue, and that's why they get on far better than women in the general academic population. Been there seen it all, got the T shirt. Come on universities drag yourselves out of the age old religious quagmire. Perhaps then you will be given more credit when you ask for public money.