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How to Get More Women in Leadership Roles? Don’t Ask Them to Apply

Considering everyone to be a candidate unless they opt out can narrow the gender gap in the executive suite.

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Illustration: Jackie Ferrentino for Bloomberg Businessweek

As you may have noticed, despite decades of training efforts, recruitment drives, and mentoring programs aimed at getting more women into the executive suite, most corporate bosses are still men. Three economists in Australia—all women—say that’s because the countless initiatives encouraging women to be more confident and less risk averse aren’t the best way to address the leadership gender gap. “The premise of those activities is to get women to change,” says Lata Gangadharan, a professor of economics at Australia’s Monash University. Gangadharan, her Monash colleague Erte Xiao, and Nisvan Erkal of the University of Melbourne put forth an alternative idea in a paper published in the April issue of Leadership Quarterly: The best way to narrow the gap would be to rethink the way people get promoted.

The trio came to this hypothesis because, well, they live it. “Economics departments are not very good when it comes to having female leaders,” says Gangadharan. This is understatement. About 15% of tenured economists are female. The three regularly have received staff emails announcing university job vacancies or inviting applicants to apply for promotions. “Lots of my male colleagues apply,” says Xiao, who studies incentives and social norms. But she never did, she says, until her department head walked into her office and said, “Erte, you’re ready for promotion.”