When Policy Reforms Increase the Gender Gap

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Tuesday, May 30, 2023
By Alexander Willén, Samuel D. Hirshman
Photo by iStock/skynesher
A revised system for reassessing student grades provides insights into ways that policy changes can have unintended consequences in the workplace.
  • In Norway, students have the right to ask for reassessments on assignments that will impact their final grades. A change in the regrading policy was instituted about 10 years ago.
  • Because the new policy comes with a risk that grades will actually be lower, men are more likely than women to ask for reassessments.
  • Researchers conclude that—in the classroom or the workplace—any policy that introduces greater risk has potential to be more advantageous to men than women.

One of the main purposes of higher education is to provide students with solid foundations on which to build their future careers. From a student’s perspective, it’s important not only to acquire skills and knowledge, but also to earn good grades. Therefore, schools should offer regrading opportunities for students who feel they have received unfair marks—but they need to make certain these opportunities do not privilege one group over another.

In Norway, all students have the legal right to request reassessments on any assignments that impact their final grades. The regrade is performed by a new examiner who was not involved in the original decision, and the new grader has the final say. When the reassessment is carried out by an independent third party, the procedure appears more reliable to everyone, from students to employers.

Until about ten years ago, the process in Norway worked like this: The new examiner would receive a copy of the student’s assignment or exam as well as the student’s initial grade, the original examiner’s justification for giving that grade, and the student’s motivation for requesting a regrade. After a major reform was introduced in 2014, the new examiner was given a copy of the original assignment, but no information about what grade the student had received previously.

The goal was to provide students with a fair chance at reassessment not anchored to prior results. The reform caused an increase in the number of assessments submitted for a regrade, suggesting students believed the policy change was beneficial to them. As researchers at NHH Norwegian School of Economics in Bergen, we were curious about the long-term impacts of the reform, so we analyzed administrative data on student cohorts at NHH from 2009 to 2019.

We found that, prior to the policy shift, 84.4 percent of regrade requests resulted in an unchanged grade, 14.7 percent led to a grade improvement, and only 0.9 percent triggered a reduction. After the reform, the share of positive reevaluations rose to 32.2 percent (a 219 percent rise), but the number of negative regrades shot up to 11.7 percent (a 1,300 percent rise). In short, a student had a higher chance at getting a beneficial reassessment but also faced a greater risk of getting a worse result.

The grade reform has been much more popular with males. In fact, the gender gap between students requesting regrades has increased by about 100 percent.

Given the increased number of positive reassessments, we suspect that the reform has had a favorable impact on students’ grades—and, farther down the line, on their employability. However, the reform also has had an unforeseen impact on gender dynamics. Although the change caused more students overall to request a reassessment, it has been much more popular with males. In fact, since the reform, the gender gap between students requesting regrades has increased by about 100 percent.

How can we explain this unintended consequence? And how are our findings relevant to other organizations considering revisions to their policies?

Perceiving and Closing the Gender Gap

Previous research has shown that, compared to men, women tend to be less confident, more risk-averse, and more likely to opt out of competition. In the case of Norway’s new approach to regrading, we believe these factors were key reasons that males responded to the reform in greater numbers than their female peers.

In 2013, there was no gender gap in the average number of assignments that were changed because of regrades. But by 2016, there was a 25 percent gap. While women tended to earn slightly more grade points per request, this advantage was far outweighed by the fact that men asked for regrades more frequently.

Of course, we do not think the gender consequences of the reform were intentional. Norway sits at number three in the World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Gender Gap Report. This index measures how close nations are to achieving gender parity in economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

Women tend to be less confident, more risk-averse, and more likely to opt out of competition than men. We believe these were key reasons that males responded to the regrading reform in greater numbers than their female peers.

But the disparity does illustrate the point that most policy decisions have an impact on how people view the riskiness of making certain choices. Sometimes changes can lead to positive outcomes, such as when individuals are dissuaded from breaking the law because they don’t want to incur the penalties. But sometimes such changes can lead to undesirable outcomes if mitigating action is not taken.

When it comes to regrading, the two of us have taken mitigating action by revising the way we carry out and mark assessments. For example, on some exam papers, we now feature more multiple choice questions, which have clear right and wrong answers. With this format, students have fewer opportunities to appeal the examiner’s decisions, so it is less likely that final grades will be amended in favor of male students. In addition, on essay-style questions, we give students and examiners greater scope to disagree over the fairness of a grade.

Assessing Policies for Risk

The main takeaway from our study is that leaders at all institutions need to think carefully about how they reward risk-taking. For instance, if they plan to offer a bonus to top performers, does it involve a level of risk? Does that mean that most applicants will be men?

Some women will throw their hats into the ring when a greater risk comes with a greater chance of reward. However, in most systems that involve risk of loss, women are likely to be at a disadvantage. If women think they are less likely than men to benefit from a particular policy or choice, many will hesitate to engage. Therefore, policies that reward risk-taking are likely to make the gender gap grow wider.

If women think they are less likely than men to benefit from a particular policy or choice, many will hesitate to engage.

We have identified one crucial way to narrow that gap: Provide access to information through open and honest communication. In particular, supply statistics about the overall success rates of negotiations and other actions.

In our research, we have seen evidence that students’ decisions to request regrades are influenced by previous experiences. This suggests that their attitudes toward risk are open to change if they have new information. In the business world, when women have a more accurate understanding about positions or roles within the organization, they’re more likely to pursue opportunities.

In both the classroom and the workplace, we recommend that leaders display vigilance and an eye for detail every time they introduce new policies. They need to consider whether they are encouraging people to take too many or too few risks, and they also need to understand how these risks feed into existing work policies, employee incentives, and workers’ career objectives.

There is a delicate balancing act at play whenever change is introduced. Both business managers and academic leaders must remember to check for unwanted side effects in unexpected places whenever they set a change in motion.

Alexander Willén
Professor, Economics Department at NHH Norwegian School of Economics
Samuel D. Hirshman
Associate Professor, Economics Department at NHH Norwegian School of Economics
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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