Explaining the Implicit Quota on Women Executives

Photo: Oliver Eltinger/Corbis

Given the recent focus on gender equality in the workplace, many companies are starting or expanding initiatives to hire more women and help train them for leadership roles. But once women reach positions at the top of a company, does it then become easier for other women to join them there?

According to new research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and Columbia Business School, for many companies, one woman in a leadership position is enough. In fact, the researchers found that once a woman occupies a top management position at any given firm, the chances of another woman being hired to a similar position drop by about 50 percent.

Their study, forthcoming in the Strategic Management Journal, looked at 20 years of data on the five highest paid positions in the largest 1,500 firms in the U.S, comparing real-world trends in the hiring of female executives to the results of a computer simulation of 2,000 women and 20,000 management positions. “Essentially, we wanted to find out what the likelihood is that a woman occupies a particular top management position in a firm in a year if there is another woman in that firm already in top management,” explained Cristian Dezsö, an associate professor at the Smith School of Business and a co-author of the study.

The idea was to see whether, in the simulation, women ended up dispersed among a wider number of companies than they are in the real world. If so, it would suggest that in the real world, women “cluster” — a woman in a high-ranking management position is likely to lead to other women at the top. If, in contrast, women in the real world were less clustered than in the simulation, it would mean, as the authors put it, “that the probability that a woman occupies a given top management position is lower if other positions on the same team are filled by women.”

As the authors point out, one might expect a snowball effect in which having one woman in a high-paying position – a woman who can act as a mentor or role model for women in the lower ranks of management – leads to the promotion of other women. But that’s not what they found. In the real world, Dezsö said, “there is some force that pushes women away from each other.”

What is this force? Many people believe in the existence of the so-called queen bee syndrome, in which a token woman in a powerful position regards other women as potential threats and therefore resists hiring or promoting them. Dezsö and his colleagues’ simulation didn’t support this interpretation. Rather, they think that even if successful women want to bring other women up with them, other forces might make it tough to do so. “When a woman occupies the CEO position, the chances of a woman occupying another top management position in that firm still drop — there is still a negative effect,” Dezsö said. “She might provide the most help to other women, but that is not enough to overcome resistance from male top managers, in whatever form that resistance might manifest itself.”

That leaves two possibilities: Male managers are outright resistant to promoting women and become more so after one reaches a top position, or there’s some sort of implicit quota — a quiet that’s enough — that kicks in after a female top manager is hired. Though his study is inconclusive on which explanation is more likely, or whether it’s some combination of the two, Dezsö leans toward the latter. “It might not be outright discrimination, it might be something subliminal,” he said. “It’s not that they’re colluding and trying to actively undermine promotion.”

The problem, the researchers believe, is that once companies make an effort to reach diversity goals and provide opportunities for women, they attach less priority to these goals after they’ve hired one. “While firms gain legitimacy from having women in top management,” the study explains, “the marginal value of this legitimacy declines with each woman.”

Though this implicit quota may be hard to break, Dezsö and his colleagues have explored some potential remedies. In a previous study that looked at how employees’ salaries changed when a CEO had a newborn baby, they found that having a daughter led male CEOs to increase salaries of all employees, male and female. “There is some research in psychology that suggests that men acquire more feminine values when they have a daughter, and one of these feminine values is to be more communal, to care about the wellbeing of your workers,” Dezsö said. “We, of course, can’t force a CEO to have a kid, but it allows us to infer that if we somehow expose CEOs to these values or implement programs to sensitize the CEOs to gender issues, that might have a valuable effect.” 

The Implicit Quota on Women Executives