Nudging Gender Bias in the Workplace


Faculty Researcher Iris Bohnet, Academic Dean, Professor of Public Policy, Director, Women and Public Policy Program, Harvard Kennedy School Paper Title When Performance Trumps Gender Bias: Joint vs. Separate Evaluation Coauthor Max Bazerman, Harvard Business School; Alexandra van Geen, Harvard Kennedy School

With only a small minority of women holding chief executive positions in Fortune 500 companies (3 percent in 2010), gender imbalance continues in the workplace, taking its toll on countless women’s careers and adversely affecting the economy. Now, promis- ing research using the concept of the “nudge,” based on the work of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, offers possibilities for making strides in closing this gender gap.

How choices are presented to an individual in a given situation helps nudge the individual in a particular direction — an idea that may have long-term implications for gender equality. In “When Performance Trumps Gender Bias: Joint vs. Separate Evaluation,” Iris Bohnet, a professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School; Alexandra van Geen, a doctoral candidate at Harvard Kennedy School; and Max Bazerman, of Harvard Business School, argue that when employers evaluate job candidates comparatively, stereotypes and gender bias are less likely to occur than when they evaluate candidates individually.

Organizing a group of “evaluators” and “candidates” at the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory, the authors conducted their study to determine whether gender bias exists in the evaluation of profes- sional candidates. They found that when assessing candidates individually, the interviewers were much more likely to base their decisions on a candidate’s gender. Male candidates were preferred for mathematical tasks, while female candidates were preferred for verbal tasks, regardless of how the candidate had performed in the past. However, when a man and a woman were evaluated at the same time, the interviewers were more concerned with their past performance than with their gender.

Joint evaluation undercuts the tendency toward gender bias. This gender-equality nudge is “successful in making employers choose based on ability, irrespective of the gender of the candidate and the implicit stereotypes that the employer may hold,” the authors write. The study also offers insights into why employers tend to react differently when evaluating candidates jointly or separately. In joint evaluation, they propose, the employer has more data to update his or her stereotypical beliefs about the sex a candidate belongs to. More important, the authors contend, “is that employers may decide differently in joint than in separate evaluation because they switch from a more intuitive evaluation mode based on heuristics in separate evaluation to a more reasoned mode when comparing alternatives in joint evaluation.”

These findings are key in considering how promotions are awarded, when employers typically make decisions on individual cases. “Whether the manager will be promoted to the senior position, the attorney will make partner, or a junior faculty member will be granted ten- ure — these are all individual decisions,” Bohnet recently commented. “Most of these positions come with strong gender stereotypes about leadership aptitude. Much like MBA students who — when given an otherwise identical case descrip- tion — tend to evaluate the chief executive named Jane more harshly than one named John, we also still associate leadership with men.” One unfortunate consequence of this practice is that less-qualified candidates will be promoted more often owing to insufficient attention to quality, leaving both the highly qualified women and the company worse off.

Rather than trying to change beliefs that lead to stereotypes, the authors argue, making a switch in judgment modes may positively impact hiring and promotion procedures. Because gender quotas are controversial, and diversity training provides few gains in eliminating gender imbalance in the workplace, instituting intelligent hiring and promotion proce- dures may go a long way toward creating a more equal playing field for professional women, while at the same time allowing organizations to attract and retain top employees.

— by Lori Shridhare

“Instituting intelligent hiring and promotion procedures may go a long way toward creating a more equal playing field for professional women.”

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