What Works | Iris Bohnet

Summary of: What Works: Gender Equality by Design
By: Iris Bohnet


Imagine a world where gender equality flourishes, and unconscious biases no longer prevent individuals from reaching their full potential. Iris Bohnet’s ‘What Works: Gender Equality by Design’ transports you through a journey of understanding gender biases, their consequences, and the power of behavioral design in mitigating them. Delve into the fascinating history of blind auditions in orchestras and explore how these auditions yield their transformative impact on promoting gender equality. Get ready to learn how to identify and combat stereotypes, using experimentation to reveal hidden biases and creating environments that encourage fairness and gender equality at work, education, and all facets of life.

The Power of Blind Auditions

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s adoption of blind auditions sparked a shift in how US orchestras picked musicians. Previously, gender bias impacted selections heavily, with only 5% of performers in top orchestras being female in 1970. Blind auditions, where judges listened to the musicians but could not see them, helped to increase this number to over 35%. Stereotypes and unconscious bias impacted the former selections. Blind auditions open up opportunities to find talent from a broad pool that was previously excluded. Greater gender equality in the workforce has the potential to increase per capita income by up to 40%. Experimentation can help increase diversity and make US Orchestras more inclusive.

De-biasing: Overcoming the Limitations of Stereotypes and Prejudices in the Workplace

The Impact of Behavioral Design and De-biasing Strategies on Perception and Decision-making in the Workplace

Unconscious bias is a pervasive force that distorts people’s perception and judgment, particularly in the workplace, where gender stereotypes and group characteristics often limit women’s options and stifle their leadership potential. While asking people to seek fair solutions and avoid stereotypes can be helpful, self-serving and halo biases often override explicit instructions, leading to moral licensing and a lack of genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion.

To overcome these limitations, a multi-stage de-biasing process is necessary, which involves raising awareness of the potential for bias, providing feedback and training to those experiencing it, and promoting clear and ethical thinking. One effective strategy is behavioral design, which uses the environment as a tool to shape people’s behavior and interactions. Changing seemingly insignificant details can have a significant impact on how people perceive and treat one another, reducing the negative effects of prejudice and stereotyping.

It is essential to recognize that biases are often self-reinforcing, creating self-fulfilling prophecies that perpetuate inequality and exclusion. Perspective-taking, or imagining someone else’s viewpoint, can be a powerful tool for fostering empathy and ethical decision-making in negotiations and other professional contexts. Furthermore, creating positive role models and using radio or TV programs to promote desired behaviors can help facilitate behavior change and promote diversity in the workplace.

However, it is crucial to acknowledge that changing behavior and overcoming biases is a challenging and ongoing process that requires persistence, training, and analysis. Diversity training programs alone are often insufficient and can even have detrimental effects on diversity outcomes. Therefore, companies must commit to a long-term strategy of de-biasing and promoting diversity, using a framework of “unfreeze-change-refreeze” to guide trainees through the stages of awareness, behavior change, and consolidation.

Negotiating for Women.

Women face several challenges when negotiating at work due to gender bias. In general, women are less likely to negotiate than men, even in salary discussions. Studies have shown that people respond differently to men and women in negotiations, with women often facing negative reactions for asking for more money. As a result, women start new positions earning 8% less than men and rise up the career ladder more slowly. However, firms like Google are addressing the issue by inviting women to seek promotions. Encouraging women to negotiate on behalf of others and using “we” instead of “I” can also help women speak up more in the workplace.

Boosting Women’s Advancement

The Importance of Sponsorships and Data in Gender Diversity

Efforts to help women advance in their careers can sometimes backfire. Women may be placed in development programs while men are given actual jobs. Even if leadership programs for women do exist, no one knows if they work. However, more focused programs like matching female faculty members with mentors in their field can produce modest benefits.

The book suggests that sponsorships may be more useful than mentorships for women. Often, women’s mentors lack seniority and can only offer guidance and coaching. Sponsors, on the other hand, can promote opportunities for them and negotiate on their behalf. Women and minorities often hit information deficits when navigating through their organization’s hierarchy. They have fewer role models and receive limited signals about effective behavior. To address this deficit, companies can create gender-specific courses, encourage women to engage in active goal setting, and form mutually supportive relationships.

But it’s not just about individual efforts. For improved decision-making and to address systematic unconscious bias, organizational leaders must base their decisions on evidence. Companies that collect data use analytics to predict markets, respond to customer wishes and minimize risk. Yet few firms use this information to improve how they deal with people directly. The book encourages companies to apply the same level of rigor to HR decisions as they do with engineering decisions.

Successful change happens when people start to question their current strategies and become curious about alternatives. Google, for example, uses big data to predict how likely employees are to leave. Asking a few questions allows the company to identify which issues will result in departures and change accordingly. Collecting data allows firms to consider questions and patterns realistically and base decisions on data rather than assumptions.

To boost women’s advancement effectively, it’s essential to take an intentional and systematic approach. By providing sponsorships instead of mentorships, gender-specific courses, and data-driven decision-making, organizations can create fairer and more diverse workplaces where everyone thrives.

Unconscious Biases in Hiring

Hiring executives often fall into the trap of the “representativeness heuristic” when evaluating promotion candidates. This unconscious bias correlates masculine tasks with men and feminine tasks with women, leading to inequitable hiring practices. However, when evaluators compare candidates, they choose based on performance instead of gender. To eliminate this bias, hiring managers should evaluate candidates without demographic information and plan structured interviews ahead of time. By asking all applicants the same questions in a standardized order, the halo effect is diminished, and applicants’ answers can be compared objectively.

The Gendered Differences in Risk-Taking

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf by John Coates delves into the biochemical and environmental basis for the gendered differences in risk-taking. Studies show that women tend to be more risk-averse than men, but this doesn’t mean they are less intelligent. Successful male traders often receive a boost of testosterone, causing them to take more risks, but this doesn’t always benefit the company. In fact, shaping a workplace where people with different risk-aversion levels are comfortable benefits performance and equality. The SAT used to penalize students for wrong answers, leading women to leave questions blank and men to answer them, earning a higher score. Removing the penalty for guessing led to more answers from both genders. Efforts to improve the status of one group may result in unintended consequences. For instance, the most powerful way to improve school performance in developing countries is through “deworming” children, as poor health causes children to miss school. A workplace that is diverse in terms of risk aversion levels or school programs that consider health factors can help create equal opportunities for everyone.

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