By Paul Walker 07/04/2017


At the AEA website Tim Hyde discusses a paper in the American Economic Review (2017, 107(4): 1207–1238) which asks the question “Does the Gender Composition of Scientific Committees Matter?” The paper is by Manuel Bagues, Mauro Sylos-Labini, and Natalia Zinovyeva.

In many countries there are concerns that male-dominated tenure committees that are convened to decide whether young professors should be promoted up the ranks are holding female academics back. These committees are composed of full professors in the top roles and tend to be mostly or exclusively male. Does this put young female professors at a competitive disadvantage at a make-or-break moment in their careers?

Hyde writes,

Bagues and Zinovyeva were curious how these policies [gender quotas for hiring/tenure committees] – which had clear costs for senior female researchers – would actually affect hiring and tenure decisions. Along with coauthor Mauro Sylos Labini, they analyzed tenure committee data from Spain and Italy to see what happened when more women participated.

Committee selection is basically random, as professors who volunteer to participate are drawn from all over the country. Some committees just happened to have more women, while many others had zero or just one (at least before Spain introduced quotas in 2007). This creates a natural experiment for the researchers: they can compare the records of committees that were male-dominated with ones that were more balanced.

After analyzing approximately 100,000 hiring decisions across the two countries, the researchers found essentially no strong statistical evidence that having more women on committees improved the prospects of female applicants.

There also didn’t seem to be much change in the quality of candidates who were approved for promotion. Candidates approved by diverse committees had roughly the same previous and subsequent research output as those approved by male-dominated ones.

In the Italian evaluations, where the researchers could see how individual committee members voted, they did find an interesting pattern: including more women in a committee had a noticeable effect on the voting patterns of male evaluators, who became slightly but measurably more negative toward female candidates.

That could happen for a number of reasons, such as the licensing effect. “When there are some women sitting on the committee, men might feel more license [to judge female candidates harshly] because there is a female evaluator that will ‘defend’ the female candidates,” said Bagues.

According to Zinovyeva, the appearance of female decision makers in an arena that was once almost exclusively male might also lead to subconscious or overt resentment. “Traditionally in certain fields there were men sitting on these committees,” she said. “Once women join the committees, there can be a backlash.”

Probably the most important result of the paper is what they didn’t find: any significant improvement in female applicants’ odds of advancement (Emphasis added).

So evaluation is probably not the biggest problem for women’s advancement in academia and gender quotas may just amount to a tax on top female academics’ time, in terms of having less time to do research, without actually having the intended effect.