Do quotas help women to climb the career ladder? A laboratory experiment

Gender quotas increased women’s participation in competitive environments, particularly at higher levels.


The underrepresentation of women in selective or scientific courses and top positions, especially in STEM fields, is a longstanding and complex issue. Historically, women have been less likely to enroll in competitive courses and apply for high-level positions, creating a gender gap at the top of the career ladder. This disparity emerges early in career paths and tends to have long-lasting effects, limiting women’s opportunities for advancement. The underutilization of highly qualified women’s skills not only represents a loss of talent, but also potential economic growth.

Gender quotas in organizations have emerged as a potential solution to this problem. While evidence suggests that quotas provide a more level playing field, the efficacy of such quotas, particularly at different stages of professional development, remains an area of debate. Concerns about how quotas might impact factors such as teamwork, trust within organizations, and the dynamics of promotion processes underscores the complexity of the issue. Understanding the role of quotas in women’s self-selection into competitive positions can help institutions develop effective policies and practices that promote gender equality in the workplace.

This study employs a laboratory experiment simulating a multi-stage tournament, analogous to a career ladder. Participants make sequential decisions at each stage, mirroring the choices faced in real-life career progression, such as competing for selective educational opportunities or organizational promotions. The experiment evaluates the impact of gender quotas at different stages on participant’s willingness to compete, their performance, and their perception of their abilities. By isolating these factors in a controlled environment, the study aims to pinpoint when gender quotas are most effective in competitive and professional settings. 


Gender quotas increased women’s participation in competitive environments, particularly at higher levels. Quotas at entry-level stages alone were less effective in encouraging women to compete for top positions compared to quotas at final stages, or at both levels.

  • Without a quota, women were less likely to compete than men.
  • An entry-level quota eliminated the gender gap at that level (stage 3) but not at the top level (stage 4).
  • A top-level quota slightly increased women’s participation at the entry-level (stage 3) and eliminated the gender gap at the top (stage 4).
  • Both an entry-level and top-level quota, combined, eliminated the gender gap in women’s participation at both stages.
  • Women's participation competing in stage 4 with the entry-level quotas was 45%, while top-level quotas increased participation to 77.14%. 
  • When provided quotas at both levels, women competing in stage 4 increased to 79.07%.
  • Although top-level and both level quotas eliminate gaps at the final stage at almost an equivalent rate, both level quotas are more efficient.

The study suggests that gender quotas can be effective in increasing women’s willingness to compete, especially at higher stages of competition. This implies that gender quotas can be a valuable policy tool in shaping women’s decisions to engage in competitive environments, like top-level career progressions. 


This study employed a controlled laboratory experiment, designed to simulate a multi-stage tournament, resembling career progression in the real world. The experiment comprised of five stages where participants engaged in an arithmetic task. In stage 1, participants were paid per correct calculation (piece rate). In stage 2, the top four performers received a higher pay rate per correct answer (tournament pay). Stages 3 and 4 allowed choices between piece rate or tournament pay, with varying payoff structures based on performance. Four treatments were tested: No-Quota (NQ), Quota-at-initial-stage (Q1), Quota-in-final-stage (Q2), and Quota-in-both-stages (Q1Q2), to assess the impact of gender quotas at different stages. Stage 5 gathered data on risk preferences, attitudes towards competition, and demographic information. Participants were informed about their performance but not relative ranking until the end. 

The experiment was conducted using z-Tree at the experimental laboratory of GATE in Lyon, France. Subjects were undergraduate students mostly from the fields of Management (39.3%) and Engineering (38%). From September to December 2016, 384 subjects (50% female) participated, divided among four sessions of 24 subjects per treatment (16 sessions in total). Sessions were randomly assigned to treatments so that all participants within the same session were assigned to the same treatment and none participated in more than one treatment. Each session lasted about 95 minutes, and the average payment was 17 euro, including a show-up fee

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