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A slow thaw for women

May 20, 2011

Admission to medical school in Norway is based on an elaborate point 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 a man!

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 reveals an argument I call THAW — Time Heals All Wounds. If we just wait, according to THAW, 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 rising dramatically over many years, but that they continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions, e.g. 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 given 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, the report argues, 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 some 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. 32 years later, they occupied 17% of top leadership positions. In 2008, 64% of university graduates were women; trend analysis, the report claims, predicts that women will constitute only 18% of Swedish top leaders in 2040.

Spain has rather different numbers. 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 are women had nearly doubled, reaching 60%. The trend analysis predicts that in 2040, 11% of their 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 meager 15% by 2010. This goal also went unmet and at current rates of increase, it will take until 2014 to get even there.

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.

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