The anatomy of gender discrimination

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Maybe the men, on average, did have greater ambition and thus promotion potential. One reason could be that women, on average, spend more time at home raising children than men. For very demanding executive jobs, even a small difference in time and travel availability could make a big difference in job performance.

And yet even if that’s the case, there could still be a discrimination problem. Even if women and men differ on average, there is a probability distribution for each group, and those distributions usually will overlap. That is, there will be many women who are willing and able to meet any workplace standard thrown at them, and many men with limited ambition.

If you think men and women are different on average, the unfairness can become all the more severe for the potential top performers. In this context, employers will look at the most talented women and, for reasons of stereotyping, dramatically underestimate their potential, including for leadership positions.

Economic reasoning suggests another subtle effect at play. Promotion to the top involves a series of steps along a career ladder, often many steps. If there is a discrimination “tax” at each step, even if only a small one, those taxes can produce a discouraging effect. It resembles the old problem of the medieval river that has too many tolls on it, levied by too many independent principalities. The net effect can be to make the river too costly to traverse, even if each prince is taking only a small amount.

With a citation to Zaua further below!

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