Throughout elementary school, all of my teachers were females. Though my teachers every year changed and different teachers taught different subjects like physical education and art, all classes shared the common denominator of a “Mrs.” or “Ms.” as leader. When I entered middle school, I had my first male teacher, and I wasn’t entirely sure I liked it. There was something that seemed strange about it… out of the ordinary.
If you knew my upbringing you might be surprised at this reaction. For as long as I can remember, my parents taught both me and my sister that there is no “correct” occupation for men or women, and they enthusiastically encouraged us both to explore all sorts of subjects and pursue any type of profession. So my discomfort with a male teacher was obviously not from any societal or traditional expectation that only women should be teachers. Rather, I think now that it might have stemmed from a subconscious preference for women, since female teachers had always replaced other female teachers throughout my entire elementary school education. This process is similar to a phenomenon occurring across the country in boardrooms: a gender-matching heuristic process.
The “gender matching heuristic” is the tendency to replace a worker with a person of the same gender. For my younger self, this meant when I graduated to a new grade, I subconsciously expected that my new teacher be the same gender as my old one, which was female. Today, in the boardroom, the “gender matching heuristic” simply means that when a board member retires, there is a tendency to appoint a new person of the same gender. In “Progress on gender diversity for corporate boards: are we running the place?” Catherine Tinsley of Georgetown University, James Wade of Emory University, Brian G. M. Main of Edinburgh University, and Charles A. O’Reilly of Stanford University explore this concept.* Their study suggests that this propensity of board committees to match a retiring board member with a candidate of the same gender is a heuristic process that occurs mostly outside of people’s awareness. That is, they find that people selecting a new board member say that other criteria determined their choice—criteria such as the candidate’s years of experience on boards or their other board memberships. But when the researchers control for all these other explanations, they still find a large and significant effect for the match between the gender of the outgoing board member and the gender of the candidate that is eventually selected.
Understanding the “gender matching heuristic” helps explain why women account for over half of the population, but the leadership of major industries nation wide, from Wall Street to the federal government, continues to be disproportionately dominated by men. In fact, only 16% of corporate board members are women. Although many corporations have made efforts to increase diversity on their boards, simply valuing gender diversity is not enough to actually change the status quo. People might think that having women in boards in important, but the gender matching of incoming and outgoing board members explains why there is so little increase, overall, in board composition. Although rhetoric championing gender diversity and quotas can help draw attention to the dearth of women, awareness of this heuristic matching process will play an important role in rectifying it for the future.