‘Gender Equality by Design’: Building a More Inclusive (and Productive) Workplace

Gender Equality By Design,
Gender Equality By Design,

A new book by Harvard University professor Iris Bohnet, What Works: Gender Equality By Design,argues that tweaking the ways companies identify, develop and promote talent can improve equality and diversity at a “shockingly low cost and high speed.” In the following article, Knowledge@Wharton reviews key takeaways from Bohnet’s book.

When psychologist Daniel Kahneman began exploring cognitive blindspots in the 1960s, he likely had little inkling that his work would later be recognized with a Nobel Prize in Economics. His explorations of human decision-making, along with frequent collaborator Amos Tversky, laid the foundation for the field of behavioral economics. Their essential insight was that the human mind operates in two modes: a slow, deliberate, conscious one; and a fast, intuitive, unconscious one.


Gender Equality By DesignWe couldn’t get by without the second, faster mode; and the judgments it arrives at are remarkably sound — most of the time. But its use of shortcuts — heuristics, or rules of thumb — leaves it vulnerable to significant error and bias. Behavioral economics, meanwhile, has spawned a growing inquiry into what is known as “choice architecture,” the different ways choices can be designed to impact decision-making.

Now, Iris Bohnet, a public policy professor at Harvard, has turned this lens on the question of gender equality in the workplace. She finds that often, despite the best of intentions, efforts at improving women’s status and opportunities on the job falter and even backfire when they focus on changing mindsets. Unconscious bias proves persistent and elusive.

Simply having musicians audition from behind a screen [increased] by 50% the likelihood that a woman would advance to the next round.

Her new book, What Works: Gender Equality By Design, argues that tweaking the practices and procedures by which companies identify, develop and promote talent, however, can improve equality and diversity at “shockingly low cost and high speed.” Along the way, Bohnet shares her own experiences implementing reforms at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she has served as a dean, and now as director of the Women and Public Policy Program.

First Impressions

According to one noted neuroscientist, 80% to 90% of the mind works unconsciously. Nowhere is that more evident, and insidious, than in the snap judgments we call first impressions. Within the first few seconds of meeting someone, we take in everything from their attractiveness and body language to their gender and ethnicity, and based on unconscious associations with these qualities, form an assessment of that person. Bohnet cites the work of social psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, who helped develop the Implicit Association Test, or IAT, to bring this shadow reasoning to light (research they summarize in their book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People).

That early judgment is persistent and stubborn. Once an impression is in place, we tend to use later information to confirm and not challenge it. In simulated hiring experiments, IAT scores were predictive of both gender and racial discrimination, and the stronger that initial bias, the less likely evaluators were to modify their assessments based on subsequent input like individual performance data.

Yet small but powerful design interventions, Bohnet writes, can effectively counter unconscious bias. In 1970, for example, only 5% of the musicians in the nation’s top orchestras were women. Simply having musicians audition from behind a screen changed all that—increasing by 50% the likelihood that a woman would advance to the next round. Today, women account for over a third of orchestra membership.

Likability and Competence: The Double Bind

In a case study used in a number of business schools, students were introduced to Silicon Valley entrepreneur and venture capitalist Howard Roizen. After reviewing his track record, students rated him as highly competent and effective, and indicated they liked him and would be interested in working with him. The case study is based on the real life of former Apple executive Heidi Roizen, and when the identical history was presented to students with the first name changed from Howard to Heidi, students rated her as similarly competent and effective—but did not find her as likable, or as someone they would like to work with.

The findings of this experiment have been replicated in a number of other hiring simulations. In some cases, regardless of the gender and ethnicity of the evaluator, white males were still favored. This bias is particularly pronounced in fields strongly associated with men. In fields seen as stereotypically female, men sometimes suffer a bias in the perception of their competence –but their likability is not affected. “Women, thus, are in a double bind that men are not,” Bohnet writes. “They are perceived as either likable or competent but not both.”

Leaning In: The Cost of Speaking Up

Just as Heidi Roizen’s competence and ambition were seen by many students as a violation of gender norms, women who are assertive in asking for raises are viewed as less likable and less desirable as colleagues. A series of experiments found that both men and women were “significantly less willing to work with demanding female candidates.” Women internalize these gender norms, and are far less likely to negotiate a prospective employer’s initial offer — a dilemma explored by Linda Babock and Sara Laschever in Women Don’t Ask. That reluctance to negotiate has long-term ripple effects on future career advancement.

Simply encouraging women to be more assertive isn’t enough. In a study conducted by Victoria Brescoll of Yale University, a group of professional men and women evaluated the competence of chief executives. Male executives who spoke up the most were rewarded with higher ratings. Yet both male and female evaluators gave lower ratings to female executives who spoke up more than their peers.

Thus, Bohnet asserts, it is “not a matter of timidity, but of backlash.” Women are sometimes encouraged to make more team-oriented appeals in negotiations. Sheryl Sandberg, author of the much-discussed book Lean In, observes that replacing “I” with “we” can be effective. But even a conciliatory approach can backfire, as documented in a New Yorker article entitled “Lean Out: The Dangers for Women Who Negotiate.”

Diversity Training and Leadership Development: Do They Work?

U.S. corporations spend $8 billion annually on diversity training. Yet a meta-review of almost a thousand studies finds a “dearth of evidence” about their efficacy. As Bohnet concludes in the title to the book’s second chapter “De-biasing minds is hard,” attempting to raise awareness about the possibility of bias can be ineffective, or even counter-effective.

U.S. corporations spend $8 billion annually on diversity training. Yet a meta-review of almost a thousand studies finds a ‘dearth of evidence’ about their efficacy….

Conscious suppression of unconscious stereotypes, researchers have found, simply doesn’t work. In one experiment, students shown a diversity training video encouraging them to suppress bias toward the elderly actually evaluated older job applicants more negatively, not less. Moreover, in a phenomenon known as

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