Workplace inequality: it’s all down to the career breaks

Flick through any copy of the Financial Times and you’ll see a lot of chaps in suits. There’s a reason for this: there are many more men than women in the boardrooms of the world’s great companies. Explanations range from the politically correct (women are held back by the oppressive patriarchy) to the sexist (women aren’t up to the job).

Untangling this is difficult, but economists have tackled it with relish, in the process finding evidence to support almost any prejudice. One famous study conducted by Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse looked at what happened when the leading, male-dominated, US orchestras introduced blind auditions for new members. Goldin and Rouse found that blind auditions went a long way towards correcting the gender imbalance. Maybe those pretty little things weren’t such awful musicians after all.

Other studies suggest a different explanation for male-dominated boardrooms: women may avoid intense competition, and cope badly if forced to compete. These studies are intriguing, but usually based on rather artificial experiments, or special cases – such as tennis tournaments. Last April, my colleague Lucy Kellaway wrote: “Men want power enough to hang on to it and women don’t want it enough to make them let go.” I am not sure of that, but I can certainly point to studies that support Lucy.

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