What Works: Gender Equality by Design, by Iris Bohnet

Book of the week: With people vulnerable to bias, lack of diversity might be better tackled at organisational level, Victoria Bateman says

March 10, 2016
Male conductor conducting orchestral concert
Source: Stanford University/Quincena Musical
String theory: the introduction of blind auditions has significantly increased the proportion of women in the major orchestras in the US

After a centuries-long battle for equality, it’s easy to assume that the end goal is in sight, that girls and boys growing up today can look forward to a life in which their gender does not predetermine what they go on to achieve and how they live their lives. With Barbie now available in multiple shapes and skin colours and young women outnumbering young men at university, you might be forgiven for thinking that feminism has ceased to be necessary. In fact, public sympathy has begun to shift away from challenges faced by women and towards working-class boys, focusing on the latter cohort’s relative disadvantage in terms of educational attainment at school and progression to higher study, and the decline in job opportunities that rely on raw muscle power. Unlike the past, the future will, it seems, be female. Surely women have nothing to worry about.

However, according to behavioural economist Iris Bohnet, the director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, this way of thinking is not only flawed, it’s dangerous. To blindly assume that sexism is a thing of the past is to fly in the face of the wealth of modern-day experimental evidence presented in this fascinating book. From the impact on the gender composition of orchestras after the introduction of blind auditions, to the markedly different outcomes of pay negotiations by male and female staff, it is clear that sex still matters.

In the realm of psychology meets modern-day feminism, this book not only adds support to the findings of the Everyday Sexism project founded by Laura Bates, it shows just how general and all-encompassing such sexism really is – and, most importantly, in ways we don’t even realise. It is a call to us all to open our eyes. Whether we are male or female, we are all equally flawed when it comes to gender bias.

According to Bohnet, the most hazardous thing that we can do is to assume that “sexism does not exist here” – that it is a thing of the past or that it exists only in other institutions, other people’s classrooms and other people’s hiring committees. This leaves us walking blind – and makes the gender gap remarkably stubborn. Even bright university graduates are not immune from what seems to be an implicit gender bias.

Early on in the book, Bohnet introduces us to a case study originally presented by Kathleen McGinn to students at Harvard Business School. We meet Howard Roizen, a venture capitalist, former entrepreneur and astute networker who is a power player in Silicon Valley, and who has been good friends with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Students are asked to evaluate Howard’s performance in terms of competence, effectiveness and likeability, and ultimately to decide whether he is the kind of person they would like to employ and work alongside. Not surprisingly, the evaluations he gets from students are glowing. However, when students are presented with the exact same case – apart, that is, for a change in name from Howard to Heidi – the results are distinctly different. Students do not judge the individual to be likeable, and neither do they want to work with her.

As it turns out, this is not a fictional individual but a real person, and in real life the Roizen in question is Heidi, not Howard. In Bohnet’s words, “what is celebrated as entrepreneurship, self-confidence, and vision in a man is perceived as arrogance and self-promotion in a woman”. With this and numerous other well-researched examples, Bohnet spotlights the unconscious bias that exists in each of us. It is a bias, she argues, that is the result of our deep inbuilt and learned beliefs about gender stereotypes – beliefs that implicitly punish those who do not conform, whether it’s a woman steaming ahead in a management role or a young man looking after our children. Either way, it seems we have an implicit and inherent distrust of men and women who behave in a way that runs against the grain.

Of course, no one wants to admit to being sexist. The problem is that while our “rational” selves might very well be gender-neutral, the unconscious part of our mind tells a different story – the story revealed by the types of psychological evidence that lie at the heart of this book and that are, quite frankly, difficult to deny. Although when we force ourselves to think we can avoid gender bias, many of the judgements and decisions we make happen without active thought. As Daniel Kahneman showed in his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, this “System 1” part of our brain works automatically, without effort and control. According to the neuroscientist and Nobel laureate Eric Kandel, 80 to 90 per cent of our mind works unconsciously. This means that we are all extremely vulnerable to unconscious gender bias.

De-biasing ourselves requires breaking free of the gender stereotypes that we have, without knowing it, spent years subconsciously learning. The first step is, of course, to realise that there is a problem. Unfortunately, that isn’t easy. While we are all happy to be convinced that other people possess an unconscious bias, we reject the idea that we ourselves do. Not surprisingly, therefore, the positive results of “diversity training” are difficult to identify. Despite the significant sums of money that companies invest in such training, there seems to be a relatively limited impact. In fact, as Bohnet shows, such initiatives can even be counterproductive.

Rather than de-biasing individuals, she argues, it is best to de-bias institutions instead. From the boardroom to the classroom, this book outlines a set of tools that we need to design organisations in a way that sets us free from unconscious gender bias. Indeed, “design” could not be a better word for what she proposes. With “D” for data, “E” for experiment and “SIGN” for signpost, Bohnet breaks “design” down into three helpful steps. She tells us to begin the process of gender de-biasing by collecting data to understand whether and why there is gender inequality in our particular organisation, then to experiment with what might close gender gaps, and finally, informed by behavioural insights, to create signposts that nudge behaviour towards equality.

Incorporating behavioural insights into policymaking has become all the rage, notably in the form of the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team, better known as the Nudge Unit. Even the World Bank focused in its 2015 World Development Report on behavioural insights that it believes have great promise when it comes to improving economic development in the poorest parts of the world. But here in the West, we’ve no grounds for complacency: much more needs to be achieved before we can be sure that the most scarce economic resource of all, human talent, is being used to its full potential. From hiring decisions and promotion processes to how we structure teams, there is much that can be done – and at low cost and little effort – to level the playing field for men and women. Bohnet notes that Google, with an HR department that has been likened to a science laboratory, is already leading the way. Other organisations and institutions, including universities, must be careful not to miss the boat. But first of all, we must acknowledge the need to act. In this sense, Bohnet’s book is a call to action – and it is one that organisations cannot afford to ignore.

Victoria Bateman is fellow and director of studies in economics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. She is author of Markets and Growth in Early Modern Europe (2012) and a regular contributor of economic commentary for CapX.

What Works: Gender Equality by Design
By Iris Bohnet
Harvard University Press, 400pp, £19.95
ISBN 9780674089037
Published 8 March 2016

The author

Author Iris Bohnet, Harvard Kennedy SchoolIris Bohnet, professor of public policy and director of the Women and Public Policy Program, Harvard Kennedy School, was born and raised in Lucerne, “a beautiful town of 100,000 in the heart of Switzerland. I grew up with my parents and my older sister, Brigitte, in a home filled with love and laughter. I believe that my family, more so than the environment, had a strong impact on my life. 

“One story drives this point home. I gave the graduation speech at my high school, which was quite critical of the school (in hindsight, too critical, but it was what I felt then). Afterwards, our state’s minister of education came up to my parents and told them that he was a bit shocked and disappointed that their daughter would make such critical remarks. My dad, who knew the minister, responded: ‘I am afraid that if my daughter says so, it must be true.’ Small and big gestures such as this one allowed me to believe that anything was possible, for me – and for everyone one else with big dreams.” 

“I live in Newton, Massachusetts, in the US now, together with my husband, Michael, and our two sons, Dominik (14) and Luca (8). My acknowledgements in the book describe how I feel about them: ‘And while in this very book I write about people’s tendency to be overconfident, some of us are in fact blessed to have many “bests” in their lives. My husband, Michael, is the best husband ever. Words cannot describe how much your love and understanding mean to me. You make it seem so easy to live gender equality! Our children, Dominik and Luca, are such a gift, and yes, they are the very best children we could have. They taught me to live in the present and enjoy the moment, and they are among the best ambassadors this book and its author could ever have.’”

As a child, Bohnet “loved reading and good debates (although there were moments when I broke into tears when I could not keep up with my dad’s arguments).” 

In her undergraduate years, she says, “I had two sides. I was a very committed student and loved my time at university. At the same time, I moved into an old villa, the villa Flora, together with eight other students (and one kitchen and bathroom) in a lovely town on the Lake of Zurich, Waedenswil. We had a lovely terrace overlooking the lake and a huge garden with old trees and a gardener’s shed. The town did not know what to do with the house and thus rented it to us until it would have decided whether it was worth restoring or else needed to be demolished – it still stands! Destroying it would have been a shame. It had so much character, so much history, wooden floors and high ceilings, and ivy climbing up the exterior walls. We would always cook together, for whoever was there that evening, and cooking became quite an art. And we had many good parties, most with the kind of music, dancing and food that 20-year-olds would enjoy, but also classical music concerts, birthday parties for our various parents and a wedding party for one of us.”

What can we learn about gender equality from the Swiss example?

“Good question. Not that much, I fear,” says Bohnet. “Women got the right to vote in Switzerland in 1971…and most kids still come home for lunch, often with different schedules every day and certainly, across children. It makes it almost impossible for both parents to work outside the home. Even those who can afford to hire a nanny – which I am not advocating as the solution – are up against norms prescribing that good mothers are home to cook a warm meal for their children (and their husbands). 

“I find living in the US much easier in this respect. My husband and I are not up against what the majority is doing. Like everyone else, our kids are in school most of the day (with a lovingly prepared lunch by their mom!) and are invited to birthday parties on the weekends rather than on weekday afternoons. Many of my friends are working moms, and some are not, but ‘everything goes’ here. I recently learned that this is called ‘choice egalitarianism’ and it completely resonates with me.”

Bohnet’s doctorate is in economics. In 2014, economics students from 19 countries called for a change in the way the subject is taught, arguing that mainstream orthodox economics is not fit for purpose, its claims to be a rigorous science are wrong, and as a discipline it is failing wider society. What is her view?

“I am a behavioural economist. Behavioural economics combines insights from economics and psychology to make economic models more accurate, descriptive of how real people really live. Thus, the students’ concerns resonate with me. But truth be told, behavioural economics is gaining in importance every day, with a majority of the articles in what many would consider mainstream journals such as The Quarterly Journal of Economics (ranked #1 or #2 in the field) now being written by behavioural economics. Behavioural economics does not assume that people are completely rational, have limitless foresight or willpower, or are completely selfish. Rather, we aim to create policies and institutions that work for real human beings with their limitations (eg, cognitive biases, including prejudice). Behavioural economics is also the approach I use to decrease gender inequality.”

Some argue that gender bias is a bigger problem among older generations, and that younger people are less prone to such bias. A study recently published in PLOS-One, however, found that undergraduate men consistently under-rank/under-value the ability of female peers even when there is clear evidence to the contrary (ie the women have higher marks). Does this surprise Bohnet? Does this mean things are not improving, and can we “nudge” this kind of behaviour away? 

Bohnet replies: “I have not seen much evidence to suggest that things are improving. Yes, the millennials seem to subscribe to more egalitarian values – but will this affect their behaviour, and even if it does, will it be enough to move the needle? 

“Much evidence suggests that ‘seeing is believing’, and as long as we do not see male kindergarten teachers or female engineers, we do not naturally associate these jobs with men or women respectively. Possibly one of the most important messages in my book is that it is incredibly hard to de-bias minds. Instead, I suggest an alternative approach that focuses on de-biased organisations and institutions. We need to redesign how we hire, promote, evaluate, structure our work and school spaces, design tests, etc, rather than offer diversity training programmes. 

What is her view of Christine Lagarde’s observation that a “Lehman Sisters” would have behaved more ethically, or been less likely to assist in the toxic financial environment that led to the economic crash (and misery for so many people who are the least advantaged and least blameworthy for these events), than Lehman Brothers? 

“I do not think we quite know,” responds Bohnet. “The best evidence that I have seen to date comes from an experiment that Catherine Eckel and Sascha Fullbrunn published last year in another mainstream journal, The American Economic Review. I discuss it in my book as well; it suggests that indeed, female traders behave differently. Critics might argue that in the experiment, we had a somewhat random sample of people, while real traders self-select into Wall Street. This is a valid concern. While we will never know for sure, another book I recommend is called The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: How Risk Taking Transforms Us, Body and Mind by John Coates. I also discuss it in this book. However, one of its main findings is that a hormone, more prevalent in men, namely testosterone, often gets in the way of smart and responsible trading.”

Bohnet is on the board of directors of Credit Suisse. What difference does she feel she has made? And is there an evidence base to support the argument that having women on boards of multinational firms causes these firms to improve the lot of its whole workforce, reduce gender inequality further down the chain, pay fair wages to the workforce as a whole, pursue tax compliance rather than tax avoidance, and act ethically? 

“I am one of three women on the board of directors of Credit Suisse. As I argue in my book, n=1 is a bad basis for analysis, thus, I hesitate to draw inferences based on my own experience. Certainly, Credit Suisse has been at the forefront on research on gender diversity on boards and in senior management and its relationship to company performance. 

“I am one of the editors of above report and have advised on it. Would it not have been written if I had not been on the board? It probably would have been written anyway. But I do try to speak on the topic of gender equality and how behavioural science can help to as many employees as possible. And I say yes to Credit Suisse-women events whenever possible. Role models are important, and there is much research supporting this. In my book’s chapter on role models, I talk about the impact of women politicians in India and how they were able to change what parents and their daughters thought was possible for girls. One of the core career aspirations of Indian girls who have been exposed to two female village leaders in about 20 years is to become a politician! 

“Other research on the impact of board quotas in Norway leaves us less optimistic: Marianne Bertrand and colleagues did not find a huge role model effect of female board members, other than for the very top, in the C-suite. Well, it is at least a beginning and maybe also the beginning of a trickling down effect. But it is too early to tell. After all, the quotas have only come into effect in Norway about 10 years ago. But again, much more needs to be done than having women on boards. We need to change our practices and procedures to level the playing field for male and female employees.

Would you care to recommend the work of an early career female scholar that you found particularly promising, insightful and interesting? 

“Absolutely. I am a huge fan of Katherine Baldiga Coffman’s research. Katie is a former student of mine and has done so much amazing work that I also discuss in What Works. But here is a summary of my favourite paper of hers (I wrote it for another occasion but it was background info only, and thus never published): 

“‘Gender Differences in Willingness to Guess and the Implications for Test Scores’ addresses an important question, namely to what degree standardised tests are a good instrument for measuring a person’s expertise. It turns out that they are not, but instead favour people who are willing to guess. Katie carefully documents that women are more likely than men to skip questions rather than guess when unsure about the answer. She uses the controlled environment of the laboratory to investigate this question. The lab allows her to measure whether a gender gap in the number of questions skipped exists, and if it does, to isolate the mechanisms that might lead to this outcome, such as differences in knowledge of the material, confidence in answers, or risk preferences. 

“In addition, in the lab, Katie could exogenously vary key aspects of the testing environment, namely the size of the penalty for wrong answers and the salience of the evaluative nature of the task, to see how these factors impact test-takers’ likelihood of skipping questions. 

“In the experiment, subjects completed a 20-question test containing College Board-provided questions from practice tests for the World and US History SAT II subject tests. She also collected data on subjects’ risk preferences, their confidence in their answers, and their knowledge of the material. She finds that when no penalty is assessed for a wrong answer, every test-taker answers every question. However, when a small penalty is deducted for a wrong answer, women answer fewer questions than men. The gender gap in questions skipped is significant when the task is explicitly framed as an SAT – that is, when subjects are told that the questions come from SAT II practice tests and are reminded of what the SAT II subject tests are designed to evaluate. In this SAT-framed low penalty treatment, women skip nearly twice as many questions as men. 

“She does not find any differences in knowledge of the material or confidence in their knowledge among the test-takers. But while women tend to answer only those questions that they are relatively confident about, men in the SAT-framed treatment answer most questions regardless of their chances of answering correctly – a best response to the incentive structure of the test. While women in her sample were significantly more risk-averse than men, a typical finding, these differences in risk tolerance do not explain all of the observed gender gap in questions skipped.

“The negative impact of skipping questions on test score is significant. Controlling for their knowledge of the material, test-takers who did not skip questions do nearly a full point better on the short test employed, and are significantly more likely to place in the top 50 per cent of performers. The results of the experiment suggest that tests which deduct small penalties for wrong answers may put women and other more risk averse test-takers at a disadvantage, and may not accurately measure a person’s expertise. 

“Ideally, a standardised test serves as a mechanism for eliciting a test-taker’s knowledge of the material. Most existing tests simply ask test-takers to submit their best guess to each question. Katie’s work convincingly demonstrates that mechanisms of this type may prove problematic, as some test-takers may be less willing to guess when there are penalties for wrong answers. A potential route for addressing this issue is removing the penalty for wrong answers, as in Katie’s experiment, which successfully encouraged every test-taker to answer every question. 

“I am very impressed by this work. Her paper has been published in Management Science, and the College Board [in the US] has redesigned the SAT test, removing penalties for wrong answers starting in March of this year!” 

What gives Bohnet hope?

“My children!”

Karen Shook

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