Behavioral design offers a fresh look at how we can debias organizations and create more inclusive workplaces to advance gender equity.
Rather than focusing on “fixing mindsets” through programmatic interventions like diversity training, as research suggests trainings have limited long-term impact in workplaces, organizations can “fix their systems” to help our biased minds get things right. By applying insights from behavioral science to remove unconscious bias from talent management processes (including hiring and career advancement), organizational policies, and workplace culture, organizations can move the needle towards a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive workplace.
To benefit from 100% of the talent pool, organizations can apply insights from behavioral science to remove unconscious bias from their hiring and recruitment processes. Typically, these interventions are relatively low-cost and low-effort—taking inspiration from the EAST framework created by the Behavioral Insights Team in the UK—to redesign organizations and make them more equitable. These interventions can be as simple as: ensuring job descriptions do not use gendered wording, as that alone leads women to be less likely to apply to these jobs. Research from WAPPP co-director Iris Bohnet has also shown that evaluating in batches can prevent stereotypical evaluations of job candidates or employees. When reviewing job applications, our brains naturally judge applicants comparatively, and in the absence of a direct comparison, we resort to the “prototypical person” as a comparison. Joint evaluation decreased biases and increased the likelihood that employers assessed individuals based on their performance, rather than gender stereotypes.
In addition to debiasing the hiring process, organizations could also use insights from behavioral design to address career advancement and close the gender gap in management and leadership. Analyzing the performance evaluation process is one place to start, as these evaluations are related to an employee’s career advancement and promotion prospects. Research suggests that women are more likely to receive vague and critical feedback rather than constructively critical and specific feedback. A recent study conducted by Iris Bohnet, Oliver Hauser, and Ariella Kristal found that when managers were informed of employees’ self-evaluations, they were likely to "correct" for some women’s lower self-evaluations in their own ratings, closing the gender gap in White employees’ ratings. However, managers did not correct racial gaps in evaluations. Not sharing self-evaluations benefitted the group most hurt by their low self-evaluations, women of color, during their first year of employment. Organizations could also take a closer look at how they allocate work and projects, as evidence suggests that women are more likely to take on non-promotable tasks, and are more likely to be assigned lower-performing accounts or projects.
Inclusive workplaces can increase retention, improve productivity, and enhance the general well-being for employees of all backgrounds. Once organizations get underrepresented groups in the door, how can they create an environment where all employees, managers, and leaders can thrive and bring their whole selves to work?
Seeing is believing—and seeing a real-world example of a woman in a leadership position can have significant impacts on women and girls. It even matters what kind of leaders and people are highlighted on the walls of an organization. Hanging up just one photo of a woman leader before women are giving a speech improves their performance and self-evaluations. Former WAPPP faculty chair Jenny Mansbridge brought these findings to the Kennedy School and increased the number of paintings and portraits of women on our walls here at Harvard Kennedy School.
Whether it is addressing the gender pay gap through salary transparency, setting specific goals for diversity, equity, and inclusion to create accountability, or setting norms around who belongs in an organization, our research suggests that it is important for organizations to use a systemic, data-driven approach, track their own diversity data, identify the gaps that exist, and test and evaluate interventions that may close these gender gaps and advance women in the workplace.
What Works: Gender Equality by Design
The “What Works” framework, created by WAPPP co-director Iris Bohnet in her award-winning book What Works: Gender Equality by Design, incorporates behavioral science research to advance gender equity and has been used as a guiding principle in several global initiatives working to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council (GEAC)—an international expert panel on gender equality that Iris Bohnet joined in 2021—published its report after a series of discussions on how to create opportunities for women and girls.
Iris Bohnet and Siri Chilazi, WAPPP Fellow, worked alongside a group of leading DEI experts, academic and tech leaders to aggregate the most relevant research-based approaches that businesses can take to radically improve DEI outcomes.
In addition, Bonet'sWhat Works has informed the DEI-work of numerous companies, the design of various HR-tools, and various selection and assessment systems around the world, including the Nobel Prize selection procedures. Hundreds of degree and executive education students at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School are now being trained in applying behavioral science to advance gender equity, and more generally, DEI, in organizations.