In many areas of life, especially in cases where a person must apply to enter an organization, field or job, there are large gender gaps. Whenever feminists call for equal representation by women in a particular endeavor, detractors often claim that adding more women means better-qualified men will get bumped down. They claim that in order to get an equal number of women and men, the bar must be lowered on quality. For example, some in the skeptic movement have claimed that adding more women speakers at skeptic and atheist conferences means replacing more qualified men with less qualified women.
As a feminist, I don’t believe this is true. I believe that increasing representation of women will increase the quality of the endeavor. I also believe the thing keeping women from certain fields in which they are under-represented is institutionalized sexism. As a social scientist though, I don’t just want to believe these things. I want to prove them and I want to measure them. To do that, we have to find something measurable that would be an effect of institutionalized sexism.
First, lets create a game theory model to come up with a hypothesis of how the world should look if there is sexism present. Then, we’ll go out into the real world to see if we can find examples of it in action.
Lets say we’re a conference and we’re putting together a panel of experts. We want 6 people on our panel but we have 10 candidates: five women and five men. The men and women have varying qualifications for the panel, which we’ll rate on a scale of 1-5 (with 5 being the most qualified). Here they all are, with the women represented in purplish-pink and the men in blue (because if we’re already assuming only two genders exist for this problem, we might as well go with the cultural representations of those genders). The numbers represent their qualification rating. Two individuals with the same rating are considered of equal qualification (so the woman rated as 4 is exactly as qualified as the man rated as 4).
In a world with no sexism, it’s really simple to choose the 6 individuals for our panel. The most qualified panel would consist of the following individuals:
This panel is ½ men and ½ women. The men on the panel have an average qualification of 4 and so do the women. The average qualification of the entire Board is 4. Even if we assume slight sexism where men are always chosen above women of exactly equal ability, we would still end up with our three men and three women panel.
Now, lets change things up a bit. Lets assume there is some institutionalized sexism and women are perceived to be one qualification level lower than their actual level. Additionally, whenever a man and woman are perceived to be of equal ability, the man is always chosen before the woman. Now, our panel will look a little something like this:
We now have have a panel that consists of 2/3 men and 1/3 women. The average qualification score of the men on the panel is now 3.5 (a 0.5pt decrease) and the women’s is 4.5 (a 0.5pt increase). The average qualification of the entire panel has dropped from 4 in our gender-neutral world to 3.8.
We now have a testable hypothesis!
In any grouping that is supposed to consist of the most qualified people and has a large gender imbalance, if that gender imbalance was caused by institutionalized sexism either in the choice of individuals or the admittance of individuals into the pool of candidates (for example, discouraging women from studying in STEM fields), then the women in the group will be more qualified on average than the men in the group. Additionally, rival groups with more equal representation of women will be more qualified on average than rival groups with fewer women.
Now that we have a hypothesis, lets go out into the world to see if it holds true. Luckily, we don’t need to do this ourselves because other scientists have already looked into this. Here are three studies that show that this hypothesis holds water:
- The boards of Fortune 500 companies in the US consist of a mere 16% women. But, within those 500 companies, there is a lot of variation. According to our hypothesis, if the lack of women on boards of large corporations is due to sexism, then boards that contain more women should be, on average, better than Boards that contain fewer women. A recent study shows that this is in fact the case and that the stocks of companies with more women on their Board do better, on average, than their less equal counterparts.
- Only 18% of hedge funds on Wall Street are run by women. If women are just as capable as men and the imbalance is due to institutionalized sexism, then the woman-run hedge funds should do better on average than the man-run hedge funds. Again, a recent study shows that hedge funds run by women produce an average return of 9% while the industry standard is a mere 3%.
- The current 113th Congress will contain a record 20 women in the Senate and 78 in the House for a grand total of 18%. According to our theory, if the gender imbalance is caused by voter sexism, these 98 women should be better politicians than their male counterparts. Since the 113th Congress is new, we don’t have stats on them yet, but a study in 2011 found that Congresswomen outperformed Congressmen by bringing more federal money to their districts and sponsoring and co-sponsoring more bills, even after controlling for party affiliation.*
If you know of any other similar studies that show women outperforming men in fields that lack diversity, please leave a note in the comments. I’d really love to learn about more studies of this type.
Institutionalized Sexism isn’t just some crazy idea feminists came up with to try to get qualified men fired and replaced by unqualified women. Evidence out in the real world shows that in areas which contain large gender imbalances, the women are generally better at their jobs than the men. Since we don’t have any good reason to believe that women are somehow just innately better than men, then it means that sexism present either in the choices of individuals or in the pool of individuals that the choices will come from.
MRA’s often say that feminists think that women are better than men. In actuality, the more sexism that is present, the more women will be better than their male counterparts. When gender diversity increases in a group, we should see the average ability of women in the group decline to be more equal to that of the men and the average quality of the entire group rise.
If we apply this to skeptic and atheist conferences, which often contain far more male speakers than female, increasing the number of women speakers should increase the overall quality of the conference. In the STEM fields, which tend to lack women, increasing the number of women will raise the quality of the scientists graduating with STEM degrees. In large companies that often lack female leadership, companies that strive to have more gender-balance will be more likely to out-compete their competitors. Once you get a hang of the idea that diversity=quality, you start to see potential for gains everywhere.
*Full Disclosure: The study author Christopher Berry was one of my graduate degree professors.