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How a hiring quota failed

Imposing a quota to boost the numbers of female academic researchers might have backfired.
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.

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Credit: Henrik Sorensen

An effort to bring more women into academia by mandating gender quotas in hiring committees at French universities might have backfired, according to a study of decisions in 455 hiring committees at 3 institutions. The analysis suggests that committees affected by the quota were significantly less likely to hire women — perhaps because of retaliation from men who are miffed by the policy, says study author Pierre Deschamps, an economist at the Paris Institute for Political Studies (LIEPP). The study was posted as a SciencesPo LIEPP Working Paper in November 2018.

Inspired in part by other European initiatives to increase the representation of women in company boardrooms, France enacted a law in 2015 that requires all public-university hiring committees to have a gender balance of at least 60%–40%, meaning that neither men nor women can make up more than 60% of the committee members. In fields in which men have generally been over-represented, such as physics and engineering, the law effectively required institutions to add female members to hiring committees.

Deschamps created a model that predicted hiring on the basis of past patterns and applicant qualifications. He then compared committees that had to reconfigure themselves to comply with the law — the treatment groups — with committees that were unaffected because they were already in compliance — the control groups. Overall, Deschamps estimated that the quotas reduced the hiring of women by 38% in the affected committees.

The effect was particularly pronounced in some male-dominated fields. In calculations performed after publication, Deschamps estimated that without the reform, 21 men and 12 women would have been hired in the field of mathematics. But with the reform, committees whose membership met the quota hired 30 men and 3 women. In physics, he predicted that four men and ten women would have been hired without the quotas, but the numbers of actual hires were ten men and four women.

Deschamps didn’t have access to individual votes, so it’s impossible to know which committee members chose men over women. But the data suggest that the downward trend in female recruitment was especially pronounced in committees that had male presidents, and this suggests that the quota itself might have changed the voting behaviours of men. “It could be a backlash,” Deschamps says. “Some men may be angry because they feel like the government didn’t trust them.” Alternatively, he says, the quotas might have reduced committees’ impetus to hire more women by creating an illusion of gender equity.

Deschamps suggests that the quota could also have had other unintended consequences. Women in male-dominated departments will probably find themselves assigned to more committees to meet the quotas, and this could add up to a substantial drain on their time and productivity.

On the whole, he says, the quotas don’t seem to be worth it. “You’re imposing costly administrative duties with no clear benefit,” he says. “It would be a pretty good idea to scrap them.” He adds that the quota seemed to have no effect on the number of women who applied for positions, at least in the short term.

Nature 566, 287 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00504-3
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