06.10 Corporate quotas and gender equality within organizations

This project aims to examine whether gender quotas aimed at corporate boardrooms can bring about more fundamental change in quota-affected organisations, whether more gender equality in the boardroom can "trickle-down" into lower organisational levels.

Project info

Project consists of following studies
Women in advanced economies occupy less than one third of corporate leadership positions, and the pace of advancement of gender diversity in leadership has declined in recent decades. Alarmed by these developments, several European countries, including the Netherlands, introduced corporate boardroom quotas for large corporations to achieve a minimum representation of women in their top management (typically between 30–40%). However, one of the most disputed questions about quotas is their capacity to reduce persisting inequalities between men and women in organizations below the leadership level. Corporate quotas are new policy instruments, and the literature has mainly focused on their impact on corporate directorates. The Ph.D. project fills a significant current gap in the literature by studying whether corporate boardroom quotas trickle down below the leadership level to impact vertical (status and wages) and horizontal (jobs and tasks) gender distinctions in organizations. We aim to dissect two mechanisms of potential impact. First, quota-appointed female leaders may become agents of change by acting as role models, mentoring junior women, and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion practices to benefit junior women. Second, quota regulations may exert institutional pressure on targeted organizations to adopt diversity practices for lower-level positions to achieve a better gender balance in career pipelines. However, some doubt that external interventions targeting the number of women in top positions can put such transformative processes into motion. Quota-appointed female leaders may lack the power or willingness to support lower-ranking women and promote diversity practices, especially if those leaders were appointed merely as an act of tokenism. Similarly, organizational gender diversity practices targeting women’s career advancements may be symbolic, taken to appease regulators and the public, but ineffective in practice. The project’s further aim is to reconcile these contrasting views by investigating how the impact of quotas on gender equality at lower organizational levels varies across organizational contexts. Based on a recent relational theory of inequality in organizations, we expect workplaces characterized by strong gender distinctions in task allocation, rewards, and formal or informal practices to resist equalizing pressures. In contrast, contexts with weaker gender distinctions may present more opportunities for change in gender inequality.
Project start
End date
Behavioral theory
  • Identities
Rijksuniversiteit Groningen
Rijksuniversiteit Groningen
Rijksuniversiteit Groningen
  • Gender equality
  • Policy
  • Sociology
  • Organisation science
  • Sociology
Work package
  • Work
Sustainability threat
  • Feedback Cycles
  • Dealing with diversity
Theoretical background
First, theories on female leaders as agents of change, and political theory of substantive and symbolic representation (Burnet, 2011; Franceschet & Piscopo, 2008; Xydias, 2007) suggest that the quota effect would go beyond the number of women in corporate leadership, and “trickle down” to decrease gender inequality at the work floor (Srivastava & Sherman, 2015; Van Hek & Van Der Lippe, 2019). Quota-appointed boardroom members then influence the organization by promoting more gender-equal practices or mentoring junior women (Skaggs et al., 2012). At the same time, relational inequality theory (RIT) suggests that institutionalized quota policies may change gender power relations by legitimizing claims of women at lower levels for organizational resources (e.g., higher wages and promotions) (Tomaskovic-Devey & Avent-Holt, 2019). Quota policies may signal to lower-level managers to pay more attention to gender-balance in their decisions, as well as empower female workers on these levels in their career aspirations. Second, there are plausible arguments that the corporate quota comes short in achieving such an impact. As the policy only applies to a few highly visible positions and requires low effort from the organization to fulfill – as opposed to changing the gender culture at the workplace – it may also be used to serve legitimation purposes. In this scenario, corporations can hide behind achieved quota targets to stifle criticism and avoid addressing more substantive gender issues, leading to a decoupling of quota targets from gender equality at the workplace (Kalev et al., 2006; Srivastava & Sherman, 2015). Finally, the quota may have heterogeneous effects across different levels of the organizational level, e.g., female senior employees directly below the boardroom might profit more from quota effects than women in lower wage strata as boardroom members might more directly mentor women at this level, and organizations may strategically invest in these employees to ensure a female pipeline for higher positions. (McPherson et al., 2001; Skaggs et al., 2012).
Research design
The project investigates the impact of Dutch diversity and quota regulations (2013-), utilizing longitudinal administrative microdata on firms, leadership appointments, and employees provided by Statistics Netherlands. The project will link these sources to large-scale, longitudinal monitor surveys on gender diversity and formal policies in large Dutch organizations (2013–2020). As quotas apply to companies beyond a size, revenue, and assets threshold, the project aims to identify their causal effects using a regression discontinuity design which will compare them to companies close to the cut-off for the applicability of quotas.
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