Iris Bohnet on Gender Gaps in the Workplace

Interviewed by Molly Lanzarotta on June 28, 2011

Behavioral economist Iris Bohnet studies gender gaps in economic opportunity, trust and betrayal aversion, and how these and related issues affect the workings of governments, economies, organizations, and individual interactions. Bohnet is a professor of public policy, the director of the Women and Public Policy Program, and the new Academic Dean of Harvard Kennedy School.

Q. Some of your most recent research has looked at gender imbalance in the workplace using the concept of the “nudge” to help correct that imbalance. Please explain the impetus for this work.

Bohnet: The work builds on the idea that it’s not always easy to do the right thing. And when I say the “right thing” I mean choosing an apple over a chocolate bar, or putting your money into a savings account rather than buying new shoes. I’m thinking of gender equality very much like I think about apples or putting your money into a savings account: namely, many organizations now want to change, want to close gender gaps, partly because it is the right thing to do. But also because it increasingly is the smart thing to do.

We now know that the talent pool is increasingly female, and therefore many companies look harder at their hiring and promotion practices, asking the question of where all these women graduates – who, in many countries are more than their male counterparts – where do they go? And how do they climb up the ladder in our company, in our organization? And so that’s where gender equality “nudges” come into play. We would argue that many of the decisions that are made are not made by people who want to actively discriminate. Rather, they’re made because of how our minds work. There are implicit biases which guide our judgments, not just related to gender but related to all kinds of decisions that we make every day. It’s these implicit biases that we want to overcome with gender equality nudges.

Nudges change the environment ever so slightly – they change organizational practices, they change how we hire, how we promote people, creating a more equal playing field for men and women.

Q. Why do you believe the “nudge” approach is more effective in the workplace than trying to change beliefs that lead to stereotypes, or diversity training?

Bohnet: Nudges change environments and organizational practices. Here’s an example: We’ve looked at how companies typically hire and in particular how they promote. Promotion decisions are often made one at a time – a certain person does a great job and we try to decide whether he or she should be promoted. In contrast, many hiring decisions are made comparatively, so we look at various candidates at the same time and compare their qualifications for a certain job.

We would argue, based on a lot of research in social and cognitive psychology as well as behavioral economics, that how we evaluate affects how we decide.

So we asked ourselves, how can we change the environment ever so slightly so that the company or organization maximizes its performance by hiring the most qualified candidate rather than basing its hiring decisions on stereotypical gender norms in which men are generally hired for certain tasks while women are generally hired for others?

It turns out that comparative evaluation leads to very different outcomes than separate evaluation. In fact, in our study, they completely erased stereotypes. When people examined one candidate at a time, they did tend to focus on stereotypes, but when they had comparison information available, performance information tended to prevail. That’s a very easy way for companies to think about hiring and promotion decisions. I’m well aware that promotion decisions often can’t wait until there is a slate of candidates available for comparisons, but there are other comparisons available. For example, the pool of people promoted in the prior year or over the last five years. So we’re encouraging companies to think creatively about the decisions they make and to build on insights from behavioral decision research to restructure their environments.

Q. You have been very involved with the Harvard Kennedy School’s Decision Science Laboratory and some of the research being conducted there. How does the lab and the work being done there help contribute to our understanding of gender imbalance issues?

Bohnet: Much of my research starts in the Decision Science Laboratory. What the laboratory allows us to do is to test institutional interventions. So think of the example of changing hiring and promotion practices. We can go to the lab and test in a sterile environment whether the sheer basics of the ideas work. So when you give people comparison information, do they judge others in a less stereotypical way? Another question we are studying in terms of gender equality is whether when you hire in bundles – rather than one person at a time – does diversity emerge? Do people look at different criteria when they make five offers rather than one offer at five sequential times? The lab helps me test the interventions that I think we would like to bring to organizations broadly, and gives us a first insight into what mechanisms are likely to work; it tells us how the psychology of our minds responds to different interventions.

Q Tell us about how your research fits in with your work at the Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP).

Bohnet: My research has been heavily influenced by my role as director of the Women and Public Policy Program. WAPPP focuses on closing gender gaps in economic opportunity, political participation, health, and education around the world. What we’re trying to do is identify interventions such as policies – but also organizational practices – that could help countries and organizations across all sectors to close gender gaps. It took me a while to combine my previous work on improving people’s decision making with the goal of closing gender gaps. Then, I realized that connection is actually very natural. Many of the gender gaps that we observe are due to stereotypical thinking, implicit biases and mistakes, rather than conscious decision making. I was able to combine insights from behavioral decision research and behavioral economics that I had used before to help organizations make better decisions to now help close gender gaps in economic opportunity, leadership, and promotion.

More generally, WAPPP is committed both to conducting research on closing gender gaps, and also to educating our students to help them become gender conscious human beings. One of our hallmark programs called “From Harvard Square to the Oval Office,” under the direction of our executive director Victoria Budson, offers leadership skills to run for public office. It’s a training program helping prepare young people who want to run for public office.

WAPPP tries to do both things. We seek to create the knowledge in order to better understand gender gaps, but we also want to translate this knowledge into action by educating our wonderful students.

Q. You have recently assumed the role of Academic Dean at the Kennedy School. Please share some of your thoughts about this new role.

Bohnet: It is a particularly exciting time to take on the role of Academic Dean, and I am delighted to succeed Mary Jo Bane who has done such a wonderful job for the school. This is a time in which Harvard Kennedy School is thinking hard about what we want to be in 10 or 20 or even 50 years from now. And so it’s an opportunity to contribute to our strategic thinking of where we want to go and how we might be able to get there.

The mission of Harvard Kennedy School is public leadership, in all its forms. It means both educating the next generation of public leaders through our degree programs as well as through our Executive Education programs, and also providing thought leadership on big public issues, the issues that will be with us for the 21st century and are both opportunities and challenges.

The academic dean has primary responsibility for academic affairs, which involves thinking about faculty – which faculty to attract, to hire, and to retain. And it also involves thinking about what we want to teach – what curriculum, what subjects – and how we want to teach it. There is a very powerful initiative here at the Kennedy School, the SLATE initiative, which focuses on our teaching and helps us think creatively about an effective pedagogy, how to communicate with our students and train them to become effective public leaders. We are now thinking more deeply about expanding the role of experiential teaching – in which students are tasked to work on a real-life issue in the classroom or in the field – expanding their range of knowledge and experience. So I hope to participate more closely in those strategic discussions in the coming years.

One of my particular goals as academic dean is to build a bridge between the world of academia – research – and the world of practice. It’s at the core of our mission to make our research relevant for leaders in the public, non-profit and private sectors. Our research has to be rigorous and meet the highest academic standards, but the Kennedy School – really of all places in the world – has to work on solutions to the big challenges of the 21st century.


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