Instilling competitive gender quotas could end the Crisis of the Mediocre Men

Gender issues in the workplace are currently a hot topic.

First, we had the furore about male and female pay at the BBC. Next, the notorious memo from a Google employee which alleged that women are less biologically suited to be software engineers than men.

A paper in the latest American Economic Review (AER) provides an intriguing perspective on the issue.

Tim Besley of the LSE and two Swedish colleagues carried out a very detailed empirical analysis of elections in Sweden over a 20 year period. The title effectively summarises their work: Gender Quotas and the Crisis of the Mediocre Man.

To publish in the AER you have to have a theoretical model. This might have been developed with Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow cabinet team in mind. To quote the authors “the model predicts that less competent leaders pick less competent followers”. A leader who promised he would deal with outstanding student debt without realising this would cost £100bn feels at home with colleagues who are, if anything, even less numerate.

Competence is measured in a neat way from detailed micro data on factors such as an individual’s occupation, education, location, and so on, across the wider population. It is strongly correlated with the cognitive scores and leadership qualities assessed in the Swedish military draft.

In 1993, the Social Democratic Party introduced a gender quota for their candidates, who are elected on a list system. Men and women had to alternate on the list. Despite Sweden’s reputation of equality, in 1991 men were in first place on the list, and hence almost certain to be elected in 82 per cent of the elections. Such quotas are of course a sensitive issue, even within the British Labour Party in its more traditional areas.

Besley and his colleagues come to a conclusion which is as strong empirically as it is perhaps surprising. They find that the introduction of gender quotas drove out substantial numbers of mediocre male politicians. Not only that. In the areas where female representation was increased the most by the quota, the competence of the men who were elected also rose decisively.

The findings, they claim, have a relevance which goes beyond politics. For example, the chairman or chief executive usually have an important influence on the selection of board members. One of the motivations for incompetent leaders picking low quality candidates is that they feel less threatened by them. This creates a vicious circle of mediocrity.

The analysis also finds that the higher the competence of its leaders, the more likely a party was to win an election. Instead of trying to portray Corbyn as an extremist, perhaps the Tories should just point out that he is dim and useless. Of course, it is a leap of faith to go from a study of Swedish elections to FTSE boards or British election strategy. But the paper certainly gives food for thought.

It is yet another example of increased competition leading to an improvement in product quality, in this case the competence of politicians.

Paul Ormerod 

As published in City AM Wednesday 16th August 2017

Image: Jeremy Corbyn by Global Justice is licensed under CC by 2.0

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Alex O’Byrne, Associate at Volterra, is an experienced economic consultant specialising in economic, health and social impact, economic strategy, project appraisal and socio-economic planning matters.

Alex has led the socio-economic and health assessments of some of the most high profile developments across the UK, including Battersea Power Station, Olympia London, London Resort, MSG Sphere and Westfield. He has significant experience inputting to EIAs and s106 discussions as well as drafting economic statements, employment and skills strategies and affordable workspace strategies.

Alex is also experienced at economic appraisal for infrastructure. He was project manager of the economic appraisal for the City Centre to Mangere Light Rail in Auckland. He also led the economic and financial appraisals of the third tranche of the Transport Access Program for Transport for New South Wales, in which Alex developed and employed innovative methodological approaches to better capture benefits for individuals with reduced mobility.

He is interested in the limitations of current appraisal methodologies and ways of improving economic and health analysis to ensure it is accessible to as many people as possible. To this end, Alex recognises the importance of transparent and simple to understand analysis and ensuring all work is supported by a robust narrative.

Alex holds a BSc (Hons) in Economics from the University of Manchester and he was a member of the first cohort of the Mayor’s Infrastructure Young Professionals Panel.


Senior Partner

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Ellie is a partner at Volterra, specialising in the economic impact of developments and proposals, and manages many of the company’s projects on economic impact, regeneration, transport and development.

With thirteen years experience at Volterra delivering high quality projects to clients across the public and private sector, Ellie has expertise in developing methods of estimating economic impact where complex issues exist with regards to deadweight, displacement and additionality.

Ellie has significant experience in estimating the economic impact across all types of property development including residential, leisure, office and mixed use schemes.

Project management of recent high profile schemes include the luxury hotel London Peninsula, Battersea Power Station and the Nova scheme at London Victoria. Ellie has also led studies across the country estimating the economic and regeneration impact of proposed transport investments, including studies on HS2 and Crossrail.

Ellie holds a degree in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Cambridge.