The Rule of Three

Three boxes


What is The Rule of Three?

Iceland has been called “a feminist paradise” in terms of health, education, economics, politics, and justice.Women figure prominently in the upper levels of its government (Johanna Sigurdardottir was PM 2009-13); and they are well represented in banking and business. 

A group of Icelandic woman leaders, in a recent interview, spoke about “the rule of three” as a key to the advances women have made toward equality there.  In their experience, one women on a board or in an organization will not have enough support for her ideas.  Even two women will not have much influence.  But once you get three or more women in a group, the culture of the group begins to change.  There seems to be more anecdotal evidence than social science research on this phenomenon; I found a few references here and in the passage below:

In my first year of graduate school, I observed a phenomenon that ultimately became known as “The Rule of 3.” To understand the rule and how it operates, I invite you to step back in time with me. We’re seated next to each other in a graduate school classroom. The professor is leading a discussion on race as a factor in medical/psychiatric diagnoses. Lots of white students participate in the conversation. There are two black students in the class. They remain silent.

I’m puzzled and disappointed. We lost the opportunity to hear a non-white perspective on a racial issue. I’m curious about why this happened, so I seek out the professor. She references social science research. “Until three members of the non-dominant group are present, they typically will not speak up, and if they do, they will often not be heard.”

As a leadership and business psychologist, my work sometimes focuses on bringing talented women and women’s talents to the leadership table. When corporate leaders ask what metrics to set for women’s initiatives, I tell them about The Rule of 3. Their visual response is often that snap-to-attention look on someone’s face when they become instantly aware of something that’s been happening, yet gone unnoticed, for a long time. They suddenly see the lack of attention to the voice of the lone woman in the room. You can almost see them watching the not-so-instant replays in their mind’s eye.

“Include three women on the leadership team,” I advise.  Dr. Anne Perschel

This experience sounds like common sense to me, and I wonder if we might think about it as we engage in the many discussions about diversity, inclusion, and institutional change planned for the upcoming annual meeting of the American Alliance of Museums in Washington DC, May 25-29, 2016.

Affirmative Action or Operative Ideal?

A rule of three?  Is this some kind of quota system we have to follow?  I don’t think so.  As I said, it seems like common sense for those of us who believe that institutional change in museums is important.  I prefer to think of the Rule of Three as an “operative ideal,” a concept that I studied in my humanities classes when I was an undergraduate, and which has remained with me ever since.

In the aftermath of World War II, French philosopher Jacques Maritain worked with an international group to develop the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the nascent United Nations in 1948.  At the time, given the terrible divisions that instigated and resulted from World War II, many thought that an organization like the United Nations was impossible, and that a set of principles to which most nations could agree was out of the question. In working on the Declaration, Maritain came up with the concept of “operative ideals,” beliefs and ideas (the right to life, freedom from slavery, freedom of association, etc.) to which groups with very different perspectives could agree in principle, even if they had different viewpoints and even if at the time they were not living up to the principles in fact.  An operative ideal does not have the force of law; there is no governing entity to enact it. Instead its power resides in its possibilities and in the commitment differing groups make to its attainment.


Just imagine what might happen if professional associations like AAM (including its Professional Networks), ASTC, ACM, AASLH, and various regional associations, our museums and other cultural organizations, our museum studies programs, etc. adopted The Rule of Three as an operative ideal for achieving institutional diversity and inclusion.  Just think about the impact that three (or more) senior managers from underrepresented groups in our field might have on the organizational culture of our various institutions. It’s not that three such people will think alike–far from it–but it’s likely that business as usual (some might call it white privilege*) will be disrupted.  This may be why the idea is a bit discomfiting–but worth considering.  What do you think?

*…invisible systems conferring dominance on my group…an invisible package of assets that [white people] can count on cashing in each day…Conditions that are viewed by whites as morally neutral. normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow them to be more like us.” Peggy Mcintosh.  1990.

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2 thoughts on “The Rule of Three

  1. Thanks, Gil, this is a great example. by the way I’ll be out your way again at end of July for the Siderius reunion. Hope we can touch base. Best- Gretchen

  2. Our experience here at the Museum at Central School in Kalispell supports the idea that balanced gender representation is good for the organization. We currently have seven women and seven men on our board of directors, and in the twelve years I’ve been the executive director, it has never been worse than seven men and six women. The women leading our organization are every bit as vocal expressing opinions and ideas as the men, and our success shows it. Personally, it seems like a slam dunk concept that the more balanced the gender representation, the better (more diverse) will be the decision making process.

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