What Works: Gender Equality by Design

If I'd started by reading the last chapter of Iris Bohnet's book, What Works: Gender Equality by Design first instead of beginning at the first chapter and working my way through to the end, I would have found out that

a) we can reduce gender inequality rapidly if we are 'armed with data'
b) 'a good leader is a behavioral designer'
c) she would offer 'thirty-six research-grounded design suggestions' to help the good leaders reduce gender inequality.

I might have been sceptical of the first two assertions, and dubious about the efficacy of thirty-six suggestions. (Thus demonstrating some of the cognitive biases she talks about). As it was, I started at the beginning and was immediately hooked into her persuasive arguments on how to rapidly reduce gender inequality, backed up by research studies and masses of examples. I noted pages to revisit. The list is long. The book is full of nuggets of interest to explore further. As I read I was looking for stuff that was immediately practical, that we could try out in our organisation and that might have a positive impact on gender equality. (In 2013 we had a total workforce that was 68.9% female and 31.1% male, but at the highest levels the numbers reverse to 39.5% female and 60.5% male).

Bohnet presents some intriguing information, I'll pick out three examples – out of many – that alerted me to things that might be going on in the organisation I work in.

1. Diversity training including unconscious bias training is 'unlikely to change attitudes, let alone behavior, if they set out only to make employees aware of their biases' (which most do). In fact there is some evidence to show that 'diversity training programs were associated with a small drop in the likelihood that under-represented groups became managers'.

2. Leadership training programs are not providing women with the support and capacity building that they need to close the gender gap – see a McKinsey article Why leadership development programs fail which Bohnet refers to. She discusses how leadership development programs underestimate the strength of existing mindsets and also how there is often a failure to evaluate carefully whether there is any behavioral change attributable to the program.

3. Gendered wording in job advertisements and role descriptions have an impact on how applicants perceive the jobs, and thus whether they think it is worth applying for them. Equally other organisational messaging and day to day language use is often gender biased. Think of the predominantly male sporting analogies in many organisations or in bureaucracies the language of 'brigading', 'in your command', and military terms more frequently associated with men than women.

Her many suggestions for tackling the continuing gender inequality all based in the behavioural sciences are equally thought provoking. For example:

  • Find sponsors for women and not mentors for them. Then tie some of the sponsor's performance pay to the progress her/his 'sponsee' has made.
  • 'When forming diverse teams make sure every sub-group is represented by at least three people or makes up about a third of the total. … Creating token members is in nobody's interest'
  • 'Male resistance to interventions favoring women is real'. Bohnet talks of 'norm entrepreneurs' (a term coined by Cass Sunstein in his paper Social Norms and Social Rules) helping to change these types of norms.

What I learned from the book was that I could (and should) be much more conscious of the potential impact organisation design has on gender equality. So that's a start – next step is to get cracking to help reduce gender inequality. What are you doing on this? Let me know.

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