Removing the 'opt-in' process will close leadership gender gap

Employers can eliminate their gender gaps by assuming everyone is interested in a leadership position, rather than asking them to apply if interested.

A new study published in the Leadership Quarterly has found that changing the way organisations manage the leadership process is more effective at closing the gender gap than trying to change women’s personality traits  such as making them more confident, assertive and less risk averse.

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Most businesses, it explained, rely on a progression process that asks people to opt in to be considered for leadership roles.

Instead, the study conducted experiments to see whether assuming that all qualified people would be interested in the positions and asking them to opt out if they didn’t want to be included would improve the gap.

It found that the competitive nature of the typical opt-in method may be what deters women the most from putting themselves forward for leadership roles.

Even as high performing candidates, the study found that women were significantly less likely to participate in leadership selection under the typical opt-in mechanism.  

This gender gap disappeared when women were asked to opt out instead.

Speaking to HR magazine Erte Xiao, professor in the department of economics at Monash University and corresponding author on the paper said: "When we came up with the idea we were unsure that such a simple change of a default would motivate more women to participate in leadership selection; the default effect has been found in many other behavioural domains so we are glad we applied it to another domain.

“We think our work can be highly relevant to public and private institutions because the opt-in type of selection mechanism is everywhere. This might be one of the key reasons why the gender gap persists despite all the efforts."

Conducted in Australia, the research is based on experiments with the so-called opt-out mechanism with more than 1,000 participants.