Is this likely to work?
Not unless it is accompanied by broader cultural changes, according to new research from Nicola Persico, a professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at Kellogg. He and coauthors examined leadership appointments made by the selection committee for the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a high-profile body that develops interoperability standards for internet hardware and software, essentially ensuring that the internet runs smoothly. The selection committee nominates some of the most high-profile leaders in the organization.
The researchers chose to study the IETF partly because of its unique process for choosing the members of its selection committee. They are randomly picked every year from a list of volunteers—a process meant, in part, to bring diversity to the powerful committee.
Persico and his colleagues sought to determine whether the number of women on the IETF’s selection committee each year impacted gender diversity among leaders throughout the organization. Would more women be appointed to leadership roles during the years when more women sat on the committee?
No, they found—at least, not until holistic cultural changes were implemented throughout the organization that reinforced the importance of gender diversity. Without these more diffuse cultural efforts undergirding it, involving more women in the process of selecting IETF’s leaders simply wasn’t sufficient to increase diversity throughout the organization. However, when accompanied by cultural changes that demonstrated that diversity was, indeed, valued, having more women on the selection committee led to more women in leadership roles.
“If you change the formal mechanism of representation, but you don’t change the culture in an organization, then change is not going to happen,” Persico says. “I think that speaks to the strength of culture over formal mechanisms.”
The Internet standards developed by the IETF are meant to ensure that the hardware and software designed by various tech companies can work together. Because this has financial implications for tech firms, companies around the world are eager to see their own employees in IETF leadership roles.
One such leadership role is the Area Director, or AD, who oversees the working groups responsible for much of the technical work. Also important are those who serve on the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), who collaboratively provide architectural oversight, or in other words, “[keep] an eye on the ‘big picture’ of the Internet,’” as IETF literature puts it.
Both ADs and IAB members are nominated by IETF’s selection committee, colloquially referred to as the “NomCom.” The powerful NomCom consists of ten members who are randomly selected every year from a list of volunteers.
Persico notes that the random selection mechanism of NomCom members was crucial to the research project’s design; it removed the possibility that the number of women on NomCom in a given year could be a function of an organizational initiative, or internal politics, or other factors he hadn’t considered. (Previous researchers have investigated the link between the diversity of a board and its leadership team, but because board members were not chosen randomly, it is challenging to disentangle numerical representation from broader cultural shifts.)
Persico and his collaborators—Justus Baron at Northwestern, Bernhard Ganglmair at the University of Mannheim, Timothy Simcoe at Boston University, and Emanuele Tarantino at LUISS Guido Carli—focused on AD and IAB appointments made by the NomCom between 2005 and 2020.
They also reviewed public IETF documents as well as publicly available internal emails, and conducted interviews with IETF leaders, all of which helped the researchers better understand the organization’s culture—and, importantly, the efforts to change it.
Explaining an Inflection Point
The researchers found that in the first half of their study period—between 2005 and 2011—increases in female representation on the NomCom actually led to decreases in the number of women appointed as IETF leaders. After 2011, that relationship reversed, and more women in NomCom led to more female appointees.
The shift was dramatic. Before 2011, the causal effect of adding a woman to NomCom decreased the number of female IAB and AD appointments by 6.2 percent. As counterintuitive as this may seem, the researchers note that previous research has found that more women on selection committees can in some cases lead to fewer female appointments—perhaps because of a perceived need for women to signal their commitment to factors beyond gender.
Starting in 2012, Persico and his collaborators found, each additional woman on NomCom increased the number of female appointments by almost 12 percent.
What made that year an inflection point? The researchers tested for various possible explanations. They ruled out the possibility that the change could be explained by a sudden improvement in the qualifications of female applicants or by a formal procedural overhaul in how IETF named leaders.
Instead, the researchers’ interviews and document reviews suggested that the shift probably had another explanation: a set of concerted changes within IETF culture that started in 2012.
“By culture,” the researchers write, “we refer to holistic, informal norms … i.e., public speeches, codes of conduct, and other activities that are technically unconnected with the appointment process, but whose effect is to change members’ attitudes towards certain gender stereotypes.”
Changes within IETF’s culture had been touched off, in part, by a women’s group within IETF called Systers. In 2012, Systers conducted an experiment: it gave the NomCom a list of qualified female candidates for appointment to AD positions; none of them was selected. This seemed to signal to many that the organization had a true problem with gender diversity in leadership positions.
Several concerted changes to IETF’s culture followed soon after. A diversity design team was established in 2012; a diversity listserv that served as a forum for discussion was created in early 2013; and later that year, the IETF adopted of a code of conduct and an antiharassment policy.
These changes quickly had an impact on the organization’s culture. The researchers searched internal emails and found that, in 2013, the share of email messages containing the word “diversity” leapt to an all-time high of one percent of all email correspondence.
The researchers’ interviews with IETF leaders confirmed their sense that 2012 was a key turning point for the institution’s culture.
“Conducting the interviews was important,” Persico says. “Personally, I place trust in what people say about what is going on in an organization’s culture. And it meant we could triangulate: we had the interviews, we had the published documents, we had the organization’s emails, and we could start to see these patterns surfacing.”
Leaders: “Find the Language”
Persico’s takeaway from these findings is not that formal mechanisms meant to improve diversity—like the random choice of selection-committee members—should be dismissed as ineffective. Rather, he emphasizes that more diffuse cultural changes must accompany these mechanisms—and are too often neglected.
“For formal mechanisms to matter, you need to have a tone from the top that matches,” he says. “If you say, ‘We’re going to do quotas,’ and you have a highly meritocratic organization, people are going to feel that the organization’s mission is being hijacked. As a leader, you have to find the language to gently redirect the culture.”