Defying the Status Quo in the Fight for Workplace Gender Equality

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December 21, 2016
Meghan Pierce

In her recently published book, What Works: Gender Equality by Design, Iris Bohnet seeks to tackle the uncomfortable and taxing topic of gender biases in the modern workplace. The impetus for Bohnet’s research is apparent: unconscious bias against women employees is everywhere. Dozens of studies have demonstrated that women in the workplace must face a trade-off between demonstrating competence and appearing likeable. What is celebrated in men as audacity, self-confidence, and entrepreneurship is perceived as egotism and self-promotion in women. These pervasive gender stereotypes have real effects on the hiring, performance evaluation, promotion, and retention of women, as illustrated by a simple yet powerful statistic: though women make up 45% of the S&P 500 labor force, only 4% of those women hold CEO positions, 25% are executive manages, and 19.2% are board members.

The solution to these challenges, Bohnet asserts, is behavioral design. Behavioral design applies data-driven practices to the problem of gender inequality. It seeks not to address biases among individuals (who, in any case, are not likely to ever become unbiased), but institutions. As many who study diversity and inclusion have realized, it is ineffectual to point the finger of blame at individual people who demonstrate sexist tendencies. Rather than hosting more diversity workshops or seeking to eradicate the biases that cause discrimination, Bohnet says, companies should instead redesign processes to prevent biased choices in the first place.

Some behavioral design solutions Bohnet recommends include removing names from resumes under evaluation for hiring (thus making the process more gender blind), eliminating employee self-reporting (because women overwhelmingly undervalue their own work in performance reviews), and collecting significant demographic data on employees to note trends in hiring and retention across divisions. A suggestion that struck a particularly resonant chord with me was Bohnet’s suggestion to line the walls of institutions with portraits of diverse individuals, not just white men. Making women and minorities visible as leaders and changemakers would, ideally, shift mindsets.

Upon reading Bohnet’s book, a reader might be led to believe that diversifying workplaces is simple—a few choice changes to hiring practices, quota systems, and performance evaluation could result in a systemic solution to workplace sexism. As a former employee of several small nonprofit agencies, I could see many of these policies producing results. However, scaling such policies to larger-scale private agencies and public bureaucracies would be more difficult than Bohnet implies. The micro-level nature of Bohnet’s behavioral design solutions do not address larger structural problems that prevent women from being hired and retained as workers, such as miserly maternity leave policies, inflexible work schedules, and lack of sponsorship and advocacy on women’s behalf.   

These policies would also require significant buy-in from executive leadership and every member of HR departments at the agencies in question. These individuals would have to be fully informed of the realities of gender inequality, the benefits of diversity practices, and be truly willing to change their routines. This would likely be easier in smaller  organizations, where conversations on inequality could happen frequently and organically. For large companies and public bureaucracies, micro-level solutions could be lost among the many employers and managers who would be required to implement them. In a large institution, it is much easier to hold occasional diversity workshops or annual “women in leadership” events, ineffective though they’ve proven to be, and claim their presence as evidence of greater inclusion.

Despite my doubts concerning the scalability of behavioral design efforts, Bohnet’s suggestions are powerful in that they are simple, easily describable to hirers, and often require very little investment of time or money. As a future nonprofit leader, I am intrigued by the opportunity to implement many of Bohnet’s best practices.

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