Despite all the public attention and effort directed at breaking the glass ceiling, the proportion of women in leadership roles around the world remains disappointingly low.
According to a 2017 survey by Catalyst, the non-profit organisation promoting workplace gender equality, although 44.3 per cent of the global labour force in S&P 500 companies that trade on American stock exchanges are women, only about 25.1 per cent of senior-level managers are female. Here in Australia, 34.9 per cent of senior managers are women.
And it’s a similar picture in politics and academia. But there are steps being taken.
Organisations now face increasing pressure to adopt diversity programs aimed at encouraging more women to take on leadership roles. Unconscious bias training programs have become increasingly popular. Gender-based affirmative action has been implemented in some workplaces.
There’s also the ongoing debate as to whether more intrusive mechanisms such as quotas should be enforced. Despite this, there is no clear evidence that these diversity programs lead to any significant changes.
In our study, we investigated how women’s willingness to participate in leadership selection can be increased. Specifically, we studied how a simple tweak in the leadership selection process could prove a powerful way of closing gender gaps.
Opting into leadership
Leadership selection in both the public and private sectors relies predominantly on an ‘opt-in mechanism’ where potential candidates have to put their hands up and actively choose to indicate interest in the role.
For example, in many organisations, “call for expressions of interest” emails are sent out whenever there is a need to select a new leader. To be considered for the position, individuals have to notify the authority of their interest. Under this mechanism, the default is that individuals are not in the leadership selection process.
The ubiquity of the opt-in mechanism is supported by a survey we conducted in 2016 with MBA students at Monash University who had work experience. More than 70 per cent of the participants indicated that the leadership selection process in their organisation is similar to an opt-in mechanism.
Women have been encouraged to “lean in” to and apply for leadership opportunities through the popular movement kick-started by Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg.
Using controlled laboratory experiments, we found the traditional opt-in mechanism may be a dominant factor contributing to gender gaps observed in leadership positions. We found that women are significantly less likely to participate in leadership selection than men under this mechanism.
Importantly, these gender gaps existed even when women in the experiments knew they were the top performers in their group of potential candidates.
Opting in and gender gaps
Many women are often brought up not to assert themselves, particularly in a professional environment.
Making the decision to participate may signal competitiveness or aggressiveness, and if this kind of image is a source of discomfort for women, it can discourage them from participating. Or, they may think that by putting their hand up, they are going against the norm of male leadership.
We found that gender gaps emerged under the opt-in mechanism if there was a competitive selection process, suggesting that the observed gender gaps are mainly driven by differences in willingness to compete and not by differences in willingness to lead.
Women and men differ in their competitive preferences. And once the competitiveness of the selection process was removed, we no longer see a significant gender difference under the opt-in process.
Opt-in vs opt-out
An alternative to opt-in is an opt-out mechanism where all qualified individuals are considered for the leadership position by default. That is, any qualified staff - those who have a certain number of years of experience at the institution or meet other pre-determined performance or engagement criteria - are automatically considered for an open leadership position, but anyone who is not interested in participating can opt out.
Research has shown that changing the default option can have a significant impact on important individual decisions like organ donation, savings and insurance and can be a powerful policy instrument.
This opt-out mechanism is already being used in some organisational contexts. For example, the selection of presidents of associations and executive committees, or the selection of heads of departments in universities sometimes takes this form. Eligible candidates are nominated and are subsequently given a chance to opt out of the final selection process.
Through our experiments, we found that compared to the opt-in mechanism, the opting-out encouraged more people to participate, and more importantly, reduces the gender gap in leadership.
It tells us that traditional strategies for career advancement may not be very effective in many situations and that, as a result, many women may not see the opportunities as attractive.
This simple change in the selection process, opting out rather than opting in, could provide a catalyst for significant progress in leadership diversity in our workplaces.
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