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Chapter 2. Leadership and glass ceiling in economics

Updated: Oct 4, 2020

Why do we lose so many women along the education and career path? What contributes to the glass ceiling in economics? What do we know about female leaders and what can we learn from them? 

Let's start with the bad news! The "leaky pipeline" process begins very early in our careers. However, the good news is that most of the obstacles contributing to that can, in theory, be removed or, at least, be mitigated. 

One of the most well-documented obstacles for women in the profession is the lack of role models, as documented by Buckles (2019). It is hard to become what you do not see being possible. Giving women more visibility or implementing mentoring programs can compensate for this gap, which is why we took action and asked the women professors in our universities to dedicate some of their time to mentor us. Find out more about our program in the mentoring section. 

We also learned that the allocation of tasks with low promotability is highly gendered. Babcock et al (2017) examine the allocation of a task that has to be done but that everyone prefers to be completed by someone else, such as writing a report. They find evidence that women are more likely than men to volunteer, be asked to volunteer, and accept requests to volunteer for such tasks. With this in mind, we are thankful to our mentors, but we are also pushing for the time they invest to be recognized in promotion decisions by their respective departments. 

Another significant obstacle is that women seem to be less comfortable working in competitive environments. Different channels might explain this. Among others, preferences for performing in a competitive environment, lack of confidence about relative ability, risk aversion or feedback aversion could play a role. Niederle and Vesterlund (2007) find that men's overconfidence is the primary driver of the gender gap in those preferences after controlling for other channels. 

Niederle & Vesterlund (2007)
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Furthermore, childbearing has a stronger negative impact on women's research productivity than on men's. Joecks, Pull, and Backes-Gellner (2014) address the relationship between parenthood and productivity. The authors find that women researchers with children are more productive than those without. Why? It could be that women work harder than men (effort channel) or that only extremely talented women succeed in combining the two (self-selection effect). Their findings point towards the second channel and have important policy implications. In particular, the tenure track clock is widely known to overlap with the biological one. This imposes an additional obstacle to women running against the tenure track clock and sets a higher bar from them to succeed. Some very talented women might be left behind, while some equally capable men manage well. While little can be done about the biological clock, the tenure track rule is artificial. It can be adapted to account for imbalances in childcare duties and as such, become more inclusive. At the moment, we are losing talented women. 

Finally, we could ask: is the leaky pipeline a problem for women only? Kim and Starks (2016) show that a gender diverse board improves firm value. In particular, women bring a more varied set of expertise and unique skills to the table. While we do not believe such a point is in any way necessary to motivate the quest for gender equality, it does not hurt to notice that the presence of women at the very top is economically efficient regardless of a moral standpoint. 

Kim & Starks (2016)
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During the discussion, we got some (partially frustrating but nonetheless appreciated) advice from the present women professors. First, work hard on your network! There are way fewer women than men working in the profession, and for many reasons, it might be more challenging for women to reach out to professors, so be sure you make the additional effort. Second, the peak of the leaky pipeline hits at the family/career trade-off moment. This requires a more forward-looking behavior on our side so it might be advisable to have a plan, though these choices are very personal, and any advice on them should be taken with a grain of salt. 

Finally, during our Apéro, we had an amazing Q&A session with Prof. Lore Vandewalle, who generously shared her experiences with us and answered our many questions. The content shared remains private. 


Babcock, Linda, Recalde, Maria P., Vesterlund, Lise, and Weingart, Laurie (2017). Gender Differences in Accepting and Receiving Requests for Tasks with Low Promotability. American Economic Review, 107 (3),714-47.

Buckles, Kasey (2019). Fixing the Leaky Pipeline: Strategies for Making Economics Work for Women at Every Stage. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 33 (1), 43-60.

Joecks, J., Pull, K. & Backes-Gellner, U. (2014). Childbearing and (female) research productivity: a personnel economics perspective on the leaky pipeline. Journal of Business Economics, 84(4), 517-530.

Kim, Daehyun, and Laura T. Starks (2016). Gender diversity on corporate boards: Do women contribute unique skills?. American Economic Review, 106(5), 267-71.

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