Gender Quotas, Competitions, and Peer Review: Experimental Evidence on the Backlash Against Women

In competitive environments where a gender quota is implemented and peer sabotage is possible, women experience strong backlash in the form of sabotage.


One solution for the persistent gender gap in leadership, particularly in the private sector, is to institute a gender quota. In Norway, for example, companies are required to have at least 40% of their Boards be comprised of female directors. In Austria, if a university position receives no female applicants, it must be re-advertised. In Germany, some of the largest companies have been required to meet a 30% quota for female board members.

However, the effects of gender quotas have been mixed. Some studies report that gender quotas have been effective in increasing diversity, but that they have also imposed financial costs on firms and stakeholders. Others suggest that gender quotas are ineffective and counterproductive to promoting the hiring of women. Gender quotas, which may be perceived as unjust, sometimes trigger backlash against women, such as through workplace sabotage and aggression. Additionally, gender quotas may fuel conflict among women by giving them a perverse incentive to compete with one another for the quota “spots.”

One way such bias and backlash can occur is through peer review processes in which colleagues evaluate one another’s performance. In addition to academia, peer performance reviews are used in a wide variety of contexts – ranging from private companies to the U.S. Army – to determine promotions and compensation. An estimated 90% of all Fortune 500 companies use some form of peer review for performance evaluation.

This study examines whether gender quotas cause a backlash against women in contexts where peer sabotage through peer review is possible. It finds that in the absence of peer review, a gender quota is highly effective in encouraging women to compete. However, in the presence of peer review, not only does a gender quota fail to entice women to compete, but it also makes them the prime victims of sabotage, particularly from other women.


In competitive environments where a gender quota is implemented and peer sabotage is possible, women experience strong backlash. Women focus on sabotaging other women, whereas men sabotage indiscriminately.

  • In competitive environments where there is no peer review process, gender quotas are highly effective in encouraging women to compete. This effect is reversed in competitive environments with peer review processes.
  • In competitive environments without gender quotas, men are more likely to be sabotaged than women through peer review (through peers who intentionally under-rate their performance).
  • In competitive environments with a gender quota and peer review, the opposite is true: women are much more likely to be sabotaged, with their performance being six times more under-reported than men’s performance. This is because women focus on sabotaging other women, whereas men sabotage indiscriminately, leading to women experiencing a stronger backlash in these settings.
  • In the presence of peer review, gender quotas have little impact on gender pay gaps and, in fact, reduce social efficiency (defined as joint earnings of women and men).

This backlash against women is evidence that women are “punished” for the advantage they gain through the gender quota, reversing its potentially positive effects. Policymakers and managers should be careful when implementing gender quotas, particularly in situations where peer sabotage through peer review is possible. These results may also have implications for the use of quotas to secure the representation of minority groups. However, the authors urge caution in drawing concrete policy conclusions, as the study has limited generalizability to the workplace due to its laboratory setting and other elements of its experimental design.


In this study, researchers asked 200 college-aged participants (100 men and 100 women) to engage in a series of mathematical tasks in 10 experimental sessions. This study was conducted in September 2014 at Monash University’s Laboratory for Experimental Economics in Australia.

Based on random assignment, students were put into groups of 4 people (2 women and 2 men). Also based on random assignment, each group performed their tasks under conditions that either had or did not have a gender quota, and either had or did not have a peer review process. During the peer review process, participants provided feedback on how their peer competitors were performing, with the option to accurately report their performance or intentionally over- or under-report – all of which would impact the participants’ earnings. This created the opportunity for participants to exhibit backlash against their peer competitors because it provided a channel for sabotage. Participants were guaranteed that their acts of sabotage could not be detected and would not negatively impact their own earnings. In the standard condition, two winners were selected purely based on highest reported scores. In the quota condition, one winner was the highest scoring woman, while the other winner was the highest scoring group member (regardless of gender) from the remaining participants.

The limitations in generalizing this study’s findings to real-world conditions include that the study’s quotas were implemented with no justification (unlike real-world quotas, which are typically accompanied by important justifications); the study’s gender ratio within groups was at parity (whereas real-world environments where gender quotas are implemented are usually not at gender parity); and the study’s peer review process involved the reporting of an objective score (whereas real-world peer review processes often involve ambiguous and subjective evaluations of performance).

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