Are There Actually Quotas On Women In Business?

We tend to assume that the hardest part of progress is just getting the ball rolling, and that once you do, one victory will lead to another. But it doesn't always work that way — and here's a sobering example: Hiring one female executive makes companies less likely to hire another. In other words, there are de facto quotas for women in the corporate world, and they aren't 50/50.

According to a new study set to be published in the Strategic Management Journal, once you put one woman into a company's leadership, it doesn't necessarily mean that more will follow. "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,” Cristian Dezsö, the study's co-author, explained. That's why she and her fellow researchers from University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and Columbia Business School, looked at 20 years' worth of data on highly paid positions with the largest 1,500 firms in the US. They then compared this actual data to computer simulations regarding some 2,000 women and 20,000 different positions.

And what they found? Basically, that many companies seem to feel that having one woman in a major leadership position is enough, and there's no need to hire any more.

In comparing the real world data to the computer simulation data, the researchers fond that women in the real world were no more "clustered" than women in the simulation — meaning hiring one woman didn't open the floodgates to gender parity in any particular company. In fact, they found that having one woman in management made it less likely that another woman would be hired for a top level position.

As Dezsö put it, "Once they had appointed one woman, the men seem to have said, ‘We have done our job.’” Which makes sense. After all, why try to change any more than you have to, right? Once you can tell people you're not entirely run by men, you can just go back to ignoring half the talent pool as per usual.

It basically means that, whether or not the men in the company consciously see it this way, there are essentially unofficial quotas on the number of women in a company's top positions. And that quota is probably the product of what number of women the men at the company are comfortable with. Never mind the fact that women make up half the human race and that gender parity, not tokenism, should be the real goal.

This also isn't the first time that data has shown promoting women doesn't actually usher in more change for a company. For instance, one study showed that women and people of color who champion other diverse applicants face negative performance reviews. Although the business world is being forced to change and stop unfairly concentrating power among the white men, there are still insidious, often unconscious mechanisms in place to prevent things from going to far and protect the status quo.

Overall, these kinds of findings throw into question the value of relying on "trailblazers" in our quest to get rid of gender inequality. Although there is undeniably value in having trailblazers break barriers, but once they have it would be a mistake to assume the barrier is no longer in place. In order to really create an equal society, we have to fundamentally uproot the idea that cisgendered, heterosexual, upper to middle class, white men are somehow the default version of humanity and that everyone else is just extra. Because only then will the idea of one woman in management being enough seem as laughable as it is.

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