Stop Telling Women To Be Assertive, Start Legislating Quotas

08/10/2017 20:13

I used to think social progress was inevitable. With more women rising to the top, leading governments, universities, and corporations, I assumed things could only get better.

Now I'm not so sure.

With Brexit and Trump, the rise in hate crimes, and resurgence of public xenophobia, we realise the fragility and vulnerability of social progress. Things can go backwards. A third of universities are going backwards on female professorships. The share of women appointed to Fortune 500 boards also dipped this year. It's getting worse, not better.


Meanwhile, the gender pay gap refuses to budge. Festering like stagnant water: lethargic and listless. Men in full time work earn 9.4% more than women - on average. It's even worse for higher earners - finds the Office for National Statistics.

Gender pay gap for median gross hourly earnings (excluding overtime), UK, April 1997 to 2016

Gender pay gap for median gross hourly earnings (excluding overtime) for full-time employees at selected deciles, UK, April 1997 to 2016

So how can we protect, fortify and entrench progress towards gender equality? How can we ensure that people are rewarded and recognised for their work, not bludgeoned down by antiquated bias?

Well, Alan Sugar has an idea. Just ask for a raise, he says.

He's not alone. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg also calls on women to 'lean in'. Be more assertive, seize the initiative, go for it girl!

This approach fundamentally misunderstands the causes of gender inequalities.

First think, why might women be reluctant to go for a promotion?

Well, here we need to learn from psychology. Our behaviour is influenced by our 'norm perceptions' (beliefs about what others think and do). Through observation and personal experience, we learn which behaviours are widely practised and supported in our communities. If men dominate leadership roles, we infer that there is broad social support for men's leadership, and men's ideas. Even if we are privately critical, even if we ourselves question these practices, we may nonetheless conform to norm perceptions - to secure acceptance and approval.

So, people's observations of the world influence their norm perceptions, which induce conformity and compliance with the status quo - leading to stagnation. If we see other women being rejected for promotion, we may not feel encouraged to follow suit... If we hear other women being tarred as 'bossy', 'assertive', 'intimidating', we may be cautious to negotiate for higher pay. Indeed, the 2016 Women in the Workplace report finds that American women are almost as likely to negotiate, but much more likely to be faulted for doing so.


When women act assertively, as leaders, they are often evaluated negatively. Indeed, I was once explicitly told that I had not been hired for a lectureship because the panel perceived me as too confident, too forward, too aggressive. Had I been wiser, I might have taken note: adopted a more gentle, softer, traditionally feminine disposition. I might have conformed with norm perceptions so as to gain wider approval. But this would only reinforce a negative feedback loop: thwarting exposure to assertive women, deterring further deviance.

So how can we get out of this ditch?

Will the gender pay gap eventually close, slowly and incrementally, through business as usual?


There is stagnation and reversal.

Social change requires a large-scale and co-ordinated change in beliefs and behaviour - as explained by psychology professors Cristina Bicchieri and Cecilia Ridgeway. We need to institutionalise greater equality through flexible working, non-transferable parental leave, and gender quotas - as called for by the World Bank. This can be reinforced by the media: showcasing women in socially valued roles and normalising men's care-giving.

To amplify progress towards gender equality, we need to shift norm perceptions (about what others think and do). For women to believe that they will be supported in work, they need to see this in action. If Lord Sugar wants equality, he should introduce quotas, to curb men's dominance.