Representation Is Not Sufficient for Selecting Gender Diversity

Justus A. Baron, Bernhard Ganglmair, Nicola Persico, Timothy Simcoe, and Emanuele Tarantino

Many organizations have identified increasing the number of women and minorities in leadership roles as a crucial step in promoting diversity. But how can they ensure that it happens? New research shows that simply increasing the number of women charged with selecting an organization’s leaders is insufficient; the organization itself must make increased diversity the focus of the entire organization.

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) presents an opportunity to examine the effects on diversity when those choosing the leadership are themselves randomly selected. The IETF is the main forum for internet protocol development, and it has set the well-known internet standards of HTTP, FTP, and POP3, among others. Anyone can participate in the IETF, and it includes corporate employees, engineers, computer scientists, and academics, who are divided into broad working groups that focus on specific topics. Several working groups are overseen by an Area Director (AD), who has sufficient technical knowledge to lead the groups within that area, and who serves for two years. The Internet Architecture Board (IAB) comprises twelve members, each of whom serves for two years. Their mandate is less technical and more “big picture,” ensuring, for example, that any new IETF working group’s charter has “architectural consistency and integrity.” 

Both ADs and members of the IAB are appointed by a nominating committee (NomCom), members of which are chosen at random from a pool of volunteers who are active in the IETF. The random variation in selecting NomCom members allows analysis of the impact of the NomCom’s gender composition on the gender composition of ADs and the IAB. 

The paper examines IETF data from 2005 to 2020 to understand whether the composition of the NomCom affected the gender diversity of ADs and the IAB. Before 2012, having female members on the NomCom actually led to fewer female ADs and IAB members. From 2012, the trend reversed, and the presence of women on NomCom led to more women as ADs and on the IAB. 

What caused the reversal? Previous research has been inconclusive or contradictory in determining the effect of diversity in various “selectorates” (i.e., the bodies that choose an organization’s leaders) on the diversity of the selectees. What happened at the IETF is that there was a concerted effort, top-to-bottom, to increase diversity, starting in 2011. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) professions have long suffered from a lack of gender diversity, and the IETF was no different. However, starting in 2011 and reflecting a growing societal trend, the IETF began to work more actively to increase the diversity of its ADs and IAB members. The quality of the female applicants was not the issue; it appears that diversity was simply not a priority. As soon as increasing diversity became an express goal, it began to pay off: adding a woman to NomCom after 2011 led to an 11.9 percentage-point increase in female appointments to ADs and the IAB.

Prior research in this area has been conflicting or inconclusive. This paper shows for the first time that a diverse selectorate alone is insufficient for greater diversity. An organization must also change its informal and holistic norms and values that foster gender diversity, with express support from the organization’s leadership.

NBER working paper.