Balance for Better: Gender in Academia

Quotas, flexible employment, job-sharing opportunities, and selection of candidates by lottery to overcome gender imbalance in academia

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Contribution by Alison Macintyre and Benno Torgler
Queensland University of Technology

A significant gender imbalance remains in academic leadership positions. Last year, for example, at the largest economics conference of the year, former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen participated in a robust panel discussion on whether economics could overcome its “gender problem”. For many years, various governments and institutions have considered quotas and targets (Nature, 426 210-211; 2003), but it is now 2020 and still we are hesitating over the solution. Quotas can be uncomfortable for women if they are given opportunities perceived as undeserved (the “token women”). Women are encouraged to compete for positions, but we have substantial experimental evidence that women shy away from competition unless a societal structure is egalitarian. Gender equality is not a zero sum game and we need talented women to participate in academia, becoming role models in the process. Hiring and promotion based on merit depends on the biases and paradigms through which merit is defined and therefore quantified. Hence, we need quotas, until we change our social norms; change our conception of what leadership looks like; and update our heuristics to include a more diverse range of qualities. Quotas should also be complemented with flexible employment and job-sharing opportunities. Once we achieve equal representation and candidacy we could, for example, start selecting shortlisted job candidates by lottery (Goodall and Osterloh 2015), as is the case in Greek and Italian city-states for representatives and officials, or even for professors at the University of Basel in the 18th century (with few exceptions such as Daniel Bernoulli’s physics professorship in 1750). Women are not differently shaped or attired men – there are biopsychosocial differences between genders. If half the world’s population is not fully represented in academic decision-making and leadership conversations, academia will struggle as a one-dimensional edifice rather than becoming a resilient, inclusive, regenerative system.  


Goodall, A., & Osterloh, M. (2015). Women Have to Enter the Leadership Race to Win: Using Random Selection to Increase the Supply of Women into Senior Positions, IZA Discussion Paper Series No. 9331, Bonn. 

Goodman, S., & Nosengo, N. (2003). Europe is pushing to get more women scientists into industry and academia, but can the commission legislate for gender equality? Nature, 426(6963), 210–211.

Benno Torgler

Professor, School of Economics and Finance and Centre for Behahavioural Economics, Society and Technology (BEST), Queensland University of Technology