Embracing DESIGN for Gender Equality: What Works

Iris Bohnet – the Academic Dean of Harvard Kennedy School of Government – makes a simple offer in her book What Works: Gender Equality by Design: “My invitation to you is to become a behavioural designer – because it works, because it often is rather easy and inexpensive and because it will start to level the playing field and give everyone greater opportunity to thrive[1]. According to Bohnet, there is no “design-free world”, since all organisations have to make daily decisions, such as how they will recruit their employees, how to advertise the positions, how to evaluate applicants, how to shortlist them and finally select them. Her proposal is condensed in the mnemonic rule “DESIGN”, which entails collecting reliable data to make informed decisions; experiment with organisational measures and policies and “nudging” people by creating the right incentives through the use of sign-posts and visual resources. Of course, her proposal seems rather easier said than done, especially in institutions where the status quo is deeply engraved, as it is the case of many universities. But there is good news: in a deeply well-thought, nonetheless easy-to-read book, divided into four parts and 13 chapters, Bohnet provides specific examples of studies and experiences that have been successfully conducted across the world to make institutions not only more equal but also smarter.

The richness of Bohnet’s book lies in her ability to present a wide range of topics: unconscious and implicit bias (and how to mitigate them); data-driven decisions to attract not only talent but also the right people for a certain organisation; the differences and disadvantages, stereotypes and prejudices that women face when they find themselves in leadership positions where negotiation is not only needed but also required; dealing with quotas and affirmative action. Later on, she provides a specific proposal on how to design for diversity and gender equality, which includes shaping norms[2], using signposts[3] and increasing transparency[4] (Part IV).

For an audience already aware of and active on gender equality issues and concerns, some of her proposals may not seem innovative. However, others are helpfully counter-intuitive. For instance, in a moment where companies and universities seem obsessed with providing training on diversity and implicit bias, informed by empirical studies, she challenges the efficacy of those exercises to reduce bias. One drawback of diversity training programs is that they may lead to “moral licensing”, meaning that “people respond to having done something good by doing more of something bad”[5]. In some cases, implicit bias trainings can even exacerbate them if they are not complemented with other measures. She presents alternatives that might be more effective, such as exercises on “perspective-taking”, where the participants are required to put themselves in the shoes of a specific disadvantaged group, such as elderly people, by writing essays from their perspective, which can increase empathy and lead to stereotype reduction.

Another relevant example: we know the importance of having balanced research teams and more women in leadership positions. Nonetheless, how many of us are sincerely aware of the impact that not seeing a role model from the same gender, ethnic or socio-cultural position in the classroom or running for office has on women? Bohnet relies on experiments that showed that when women see a picture of a female leader giving a long and successful speech before giving one themselves, they are more likely to do it equally well in comparison to having seen a picture of a man. Bohnet presents herself as a strong advocate of the phrase: “Seeing is Believing” and, among her solutions to make female role models more visible, she recommends to diversify portraits on the walls of organisations and the rooms where key decisions are made. If the meeting room where a Board will decide who will be the next partner of a law firm only has pictures of privileged white, privileged, male founders hanging on the wall, may be more likely that they arrive at a biased decision, choosing someone with those same characteristics.

As it is not possible to mention in a short blog entry all the interesting and illuminating examples Iris Bohnet explores in her book and the inspiring dialogues she establishes in the different chapters with acclaimed authors such as Cass Sunstein, Alice Eagly, Linda Carli, Sheryl Sandberg and Anne Marie-Slaughter, I would like to deepen on the key advice condensed in the mnemonic rule: DESIGN.

D stands for Data, as the good behavioural design is always informed by data. In the case of gender equality, this implies that having sex and gender desegregated data is key.

E stands for Experiment: behavioural design entails trying and failing. But it is important to do so knowingly and responsibly.

With ‘SIGN’: she proposes to create and use visible signposts to de-bias minds and make unbiased choices; but also, to nudge behaviour towards equality and efficiency.

Iris Bohnet’s is a recommended read for anyone committed to gender equality and smart design. With simple words and initiatives, she can help us to create environments where we can work…and thrive!

Post created by Agostina Allori, Consultant in Gender Equality at Yellow Window

[1] Bohnet, Iris. 2016. What works: gender equality by design, p. 4.

[2] By shaping norms, Bohnet means maximizing the good behaviour of people by turning it into “prescriptive norms”, by telling other people about them. In her words: “What is becomes what should be. People are generally more likely to adopt a behaviour if they know that most others are already doing it”. She provides a personal example: the electricity provider of her district sent to her family a quarterly report with their consumption. They found out that they were under-performing their neighbours. Having that information triggered “a family strategy” to reduce but also optimize energy consumption (turning lights off, decreasing the use of air conditioning in summer and using an extra sweater in winter). Bohnet, supra note 1, p. 254-255.

[3] Visual signs used to draw the attention of the targeted audience or as reminders.

[4] A good example of a measure taken to increase transparency is the prohibition established by President Obama in 2014 of punishing employees who discuss their salaries. Bohnet, supra note 1, p. 278.

[5] For a specific example, see Bohnet, supra note 1, p. 53.

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