Is there still a need for employment equity policies in 2016? Perhaps we need them more than ever.

Employment equity policies in 2016? Yes, we still need those.

In 1994 I entered a job interview. An older man looked rather puzzled. He told me women didn’t normally work there. He didn’t look at my resume.

It’s a rare thing to see that scenario in 2016. Unfortunately, we have a more complex problem with gender bias against women today.

Economists – as employers – have offered an excellent example. We don’t seem to give women full credit for the work they do. Heather Sarsons, a PhD candidate at Harvard, looked at the chances of women and men getting tenure at top Economics Departments. This is the ultimate promotion for academics – with tenure you have a permanent job; without it, you’re usually fired. Sarsons accounted for the ability to publish, the quality of publications, and other important factors in the promotion decision. Her evidence tells us that whether men coauthor their research or work alone, they have the same chance of getting tenure. Women on the other hand face a penalty for coauthoring, especially with men, reducing their chances of keeping their job. Why don’t they get credit for the work they’ve done?

Sarson’s work is going through the review process to test how bullet-proof those results are, but the results don’t stand alone.

We have many examples of what we call ‘observer bias’ – a tendency for bias or stereotypical views to creep into our evaluations and decision-making. A well-known example comes from the introduction of blind auditions for musicians, which clearly raised the chances for women to be hired in orchestras.

Scientists like to think of themselves as objective. But when researchers looked at evaluations for post-doctoral applications in the bio-medical sciences in Sweden, they found that women had to be 2.5 times more productive than men to receive the same competency score.

Would placing more women on evaluation committees help? Probably not. Dr. Berta Esteve-Volart (York University) and Manuel Bagues looked at public exams for the Spanish Judiciary and found that men were more likely to succeed when committees were majority female.

The general advice that flows from these studies is that hiring and promotion decisions should be gender-blind.

But that’s not always possible or practical. Hiring at higher levels requires a long interview process. Most promotions happen within the organization.

That’s why we still need employment equity policies. The intent is simple – if the demographics of new hires tends to match the demographics of your qualified applicants, you probably have this bias under control. If not, you need to pay attention.

That of course raises the point that the qualified applicant pool tends to lack women in many fields. At the Lazaridis School where I teach, about a third of economics students are female and that hasn’t really changed in the past 20 years. As a woman who entered this career path 20 years ago, and was told how the world was changing for women in economics, that’s remarkably disappointing.

The next step in my view is to address what is going on that stops women from entering fields like economics. Observer bias raises its ugly head once more. Outside the Canadian context, researchers have experimented with gender-blind evaluations of math tests at the primary school level. They find girls receive lower marks when their teachers know the gender of students. More importantly, the gender bias later reduces girls’ likelihood of enrolling in advanced math courses, which in turn will keep them from entering STEM fields. Are Canadian teachers having the same problem?

Between elementary school and high-level promotions, we have a long list of factors affecting young women’s decisions to enter fields like economics. The jobs themselves tend to be designed for those who choose not to have families, or at a minimum they need a spouse able to take on the primary-caregiver responsibilities. On the job, women regularly manage various hurdles, challenges, and simply sexist views.

Women and men should celebrate the great things that have been accomplished over the past several decades. It would be naive to think, however, that there’s nothing left to be concerned with here.


For those interested in learning more, I offer a short reading list.