Quotas alone will not solve the diversity problem

June 18, 2023

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Quotas alone will not solve the diversity problem

What is the impact of affirmative actions, such as quota systems, on women and minorities’ representation in top ranks of the academic and corporate worlds? Scientists used mathematical models for the first time to quantify how successful quota systems can be for improving women's visibility in science.

Their findings were published in the journal Communications Physics.

What the researchers say: "The main question we wanted to answer was: the number of women has increased in academia and in the corporate sector over the past 100 years, but why do they not reach the top positions in their fields?" said the paper’s co-author.

According to the study, quotas alone are not sufficient to make minorities and women more visible in a network. “In essence, the results show that having even extreme quotas does not necessarily ensure that minorities will be represented in top ranks of the business and scientific world as we would expect from their size,” she added.

“In contrast, a very moderate quota would be extremely useful when it is combined with an inclusive environment in which people, especially those in high power positions, are open to bringing minorities into their personal networks,” the researchers said. “By doing so, they are basically helping minorities grow their social capital through those connections.”

In the study, the researchers created a network growth model to analyze how successful interventions can be for improving women and minorities’ visibility in social networks. Two kinds of interventions were tested: group size interventions, such as quotas; and behavioral interventions, such as changing the way groups interact.

“We ran these two hypothetical scenarios, sometimes isolated, sometimes combined, as we wanted to evaluate which combination of interventions would be more effective in pushing minorities to the top of the ranking,” the lead author explained.

The model took into account two key social processes. First, the formation of structural inequalities that emerge within social networks due to certain preexisting societal biases, such as in-group favoritism or homophily – the notion that humans tend to preferentially interact and connect with individuals who are like them in some way. Second, the impact of different interventions on changing those initial structural inequalities.

The results show, for instance, that even a very strong group size intervention—for example a 90 percent quota—will not improve minorities' or women’s representation in the top ranks to a level proportional to their total size if the initial configuration is strongly homophilic. As a result of historical and cumulative structural inequality, minorities are locked in their initial network position.

“The study shows that the discussion of improving minorities’ visibility should not be one-dimensional”, the researchers noted.

The results indicate some behavioral interventions that may affect minority representation in top ranks. A non-dominant group could benefit from increasing networking if they are large enough to gain a cumulative advantage in a growing social network. Alternatively, if quotas are not large enough, the majority group should be encouraged to mix with the minority group, since the latter will not gain visibility without connecting to the former.

Despite the difficulty of changing behavior, the researchers emphasize that increasing diversity depends on it. Leaders and top-level professionals can be educated about this issue and be inclusive when bringing people with diverse backgrounds into important positions on social networks, according to the researchers.

“We also need some regulation,” adds the lead author. “As humans, we have a tendency to prefer interacting with people who are similar to ourselves, since it is less cognitively demanding – the homophily principle. Evolutionarily speaking, we are wired to avoid interacting with outgroup members and that is why incentivizing and educating people about the benefits of diversity can help overcome those barriers."

So, what? This is an interesting study which could do with being authenticated by further research. Their emphasis on homophily is spot on. Humans trust most those that they have most in common with. That you won’t change no matter how much diversity training you engage with.

If you combine a tolerable increase in non-majority group presence with an emphasis on opportunities to discover commonalities through social interaction you will get a tipping point (normally 30% of people favoring minority entrance). After that, gender, ethnic and racial issues become secondary.

What we know from human social evolution is that hunter-gatherer bands were not necessarily made up of people with high kin affiliation. The glue that held them together was commonality—for example of language, of ritual, of assumptions. The same is true of modern business.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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