A slow thaw for women reaching leadership positions

Admission to medical school in Norway is based on an elaborate points system. High-school grades, work experience, even age can give applicants more points and thereby increase their chances.

Lately I've heard informal discussions about adding a new criterion for points. Perhaps male applicants should get an extra point or two – just for being men! (For a related discussion, see “A sex point or two for male nurses”.)

Incoming classes in medical schools in Norway have recently had about 70% female students. For some, the over-representation of women at this level gives hope.

Their hope is what I call the THAW argument – Time Heals All Wounds. According to THAW, if we just wait, the large numbers of women entering medical school will lead to greater numbers of women professors and greater numbers of women in leadership positions. This thaw is inevitable as today's students advance in their careers.

Unfortunately, THAW is a flawed argument. Three recent research results highlight the problems with THAW.

1. In the article “Is there still a glass ceiling for women in academic surgery?” we learn that the number of women surgeons has been rising dramatically over many years, but that they continue to be under-represented in leadership positions; for instance, as deans of medical schools.

Women progress through their careers more slowly, have lower salaries and experience discrimination. The increased number of women surgeons has not led to an increase in the numbers of women at the top of that field.

2. Women Matter 2010 also demonstrates the fallacy of THAW. The report argues that time alone isn't enough; it is critical to change the promotion system if we want to increase the numbers of women in leadership positions.

Their evidence against THAW comes from identifying the percentage of university graduates who are women in a given year, and then seeing how many of them are in top leadership positions about 30 years later.

In Sweden, for example, 61% of university graduates in 1978 were women. Some 32 years later, they occupied 17% of top leadership positions. In 2008, 64% of university graduates were women; the report claims that an analysis of social trends predicts that women will constitute only 18% of Swedish top leaders by 2040.

Spain has rather different numbers. Some 32% of university graduates in 1976 were women. In 2010, the Spanish companies in the McKinsey database had 6% of their top leadership positions filled by women. In 2008, the percentage of university graduates who were women had nearly doubled, reaching 60%. An analysis of social trends suggests that in 2040, 11% of top leadership positions will be filled by women.

3. In The Netherlands, nearly 12% of professors are women. The European Union's Lisbon Agreement had a goal of 25% women professors throughout Europe by 2010. At the current rate, The Netherlands will not reach this goal until 2030.

The government of The Netherlands modified its goal several years ago, hoping to reach a meagre 15% by 2010. This goal also went unmet and at current rates of increase, it will take until 2014 to get even to that point.

If we just wait, we won't see the benefits of gender balance in top leadership teams in our lifetimes. The thaw is just too slow.

* Curt Rice is pro rector for research and development at the University of Tromsø. He blogs on issues related to university leadership here, where this column originally appeared.