Gender Quotas May Work Better in Cultures Where People Like Rules

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Photo: Terry Vine/Blend Images/Corbis

Gender quotas are an ever-controversial way to increase the percentage of women in business-leadership positions. But new research from the University of Toronto's Rotman school of management suggests that people need to be more aware of the different effects they will likely have in different cultures. And some of those effects run a bit contrary to how we normally view gender issues in more "traditional" cultures.

To wit:

[So-called] Tight cultures such as those in China, Germany, and Pakistan have a lower tolerance for deviation from cultural norms and may even impose severe sanctions for doing so. Loose cultures, such as in the U.S., New Zealand and Hungary, tend to be more open to change, and experience higher rates of change than tight cultures.

Tight cultures tend to have the worst rates of female leadership, but the compliance they command can be used to advantage, making gender quota strategies much more effective, say the researchers. Norway, considered a tight culture, achieved a target of 40% of women in director positions at public companies by 2007 through a quota that included dissolution of those firms that failed to meet the threshold.

"It's easier for tight cultures to implement policies like that because of the top-down approach to policy-making," says Prof. [Soo Min] Toh. "In a loose culture however, it's very hard to say, 'This is how we're going to do it, so there.'"

Loose cultures, although exhibiting higher rates of gender egalitarianism overall, may be at a disadvantage for advancing the cause because of problems getting agreement on how to translate egalitarian principles into practice.

The researchers speculate that in those cases, showcasing women leaders as role models may be a more effective way of changing the perceptions of decision-makers and women themselves about what leadership looks like, resulting in more women stepping forward and being chosen for leadership roles. In one experiment, women who were exposed to pictures and biographies of prominent female leaders were more likely to subsequently see compatibility between women and leadership.

Rules, unsurprisingly, have a bigger impact in cultures where "rules are rules" is a, well, ruling motto.