Justin Trudeau’s new cabinet has, as he promised, named 15 women out of 31 posts. Setting a gender quota elicited criticism, for example, from Jon Kay, who wrote on Twitter that

I regard the late 20th century ideal of merit as a recruitment baseline.

If by “a recruitment baseline”, Kay acknowledges that other considerations also matter, then I share his view. Assigning jobs by merit — even crude proxies for merit such as test scores — was far more just than the system it has (only partially) replaced, where high positions were restricted to a small group defined by family connections, religion, language, and so on.

However, several critics of Kay have noted that political appointments in a democracy will also reflect a need to have leaders who are representative of the constituencies that a comprise a country. Kay himself has noted that Canadian leaders are still almost always from elite classes and as such fail to appreciate the experience of ordinary Canadians.

the truth is that I don’t really “see” beyond my class—except on those discrete occasions when I have the opportunity to go out and report on the world outside my professional and social bubble.

He makes an excellent case for considering diversity — including diversity in social class — as well as merit in selecting a cabinet.

However, ensuring gender diversity is particularly important. One of the arguments for appointments to positions based on individual merit is that organizations will function better if the brightest people are appointed to the positions of highest responsibility. But government is a team, not just a hierarchy. Decisions arise from group processes as well as from individual reflection. And there is evidence that groups are smarter when they include women.

In Science Magazine, Anita Williams Wooley and her colleagues presented results showing that groups have a collective intelligence.

In two studies with 699 people, working in groups of two to five, we find converging
evidence of a general collective intelligence factor that explains a group’s performance on a wide variety of tasks. This “c factor” is not strongly correlated with the average or maximum individual intelligence of group members but is correlated with the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group.

That is, the quality of a group’s decision making is not just a matter of getting the brightest people in the room. It’s about how the group functions, in particular, whether everyone at the table has a voice. Moreover, how well the group functions depends in part on who’s in it and having women in the group helps. I’ve spent my career in children’s health care and have therefore worked with and for lots of women. Wooley’s findings fit well with my experience.

If the point of staffing the cabinet is to get the right decisions made, and if groups make better decisions with women in them, then a gender quota makes a lot of sense. I’d be surprised if the individual cognitive abilities of the women in the new cabinet weren’t every bit as impressive as those of the men. And the Canadian government will likely function better for having lots women at the top.

Photo: Patty Hajdu – Facebook / Fair Use

William Gardner
William Gardner is a child psychologist at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario and Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Ottawa. He writes professionally on children's mental health, on statistical methods in social research, on Canadian and US health policy, and on ethics. He also blogs at The Incidental Economist. @Bill_Gardner

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