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How do you get gender equality? Design for it

March 8, 2016 Kate Glazebrook

In honour of international women’s day, let’s take a moment to reflect on what has been achieved for and by women over the past century.

It wasn’t that long ago that women were fighting for the right to vote in most Anglo-Saxon nations. One hundred years on and more than 60 countries have had a female head of state. And nowadays, when education officials in OECD countries talk about closing the gender gap, they’re typically agonising over how to help boys reach the same attainment rates as girls.

But progress has been patchy. There are more than twice as many bosses of FTSE100 companies called John as there are women. But it’s not only a problem at the top: Silicon Valley’s leading players – Google, Apple, Twitter, and Facebook – are 84% male. And it’s also apparent in what we see everyday: women make up less than 30% of all speaking roles in films by the US’s 10 major media companies.

What explains this imbalance? What are the costs? And what, if anything, can research tell us about how to address it?

It is these thorny questions, and many others, that are so eloquently tackled in Professor Iris Bohnet’s brilliant new book What Works: Gender Equality By Design, released today. What Works comes out in the midst of a succession of books looking at gender-related issues in work and family life; but what differs here is Bohnet’s unfailing commitment to converting complex research insights into actionable recommendations for policy-makers and business leaders.


What Works surveys – in a surprisingly accessible form – the suite of experimental and field studies on the intersection between gender and decision-making. From how the seemingly small details like the number and gender balance of the students taking a test in the same room can affect students’ test performance. To the big structural questions like whether quotas on female representation in political institutions drives gender equality in other sectors.

But Bohnet’s real contribution is her ability to bring the growing field of research on unconscious bias to bear on the drivers of discrimination. She cites this now famous riddle to illustrate:

A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!” Explain.

Spoiler: the surgeon is the boy’s mother. The explanation is counter-stereotypical and thus leaves most people puzzling before they crack it. Bohnet brings to life the behavioural science around why this occurs, and what it can mean for the daily decisions we make – like which subjects we choose to study, how we make hiring decisions, how we evaluate others’ contributions (and therefore how we remunerate them), and how we think about work-life balance. Her insights on confidence and transparency help to explain the fact that while the UK’s gender pay gap on wages is 19%, the bonus pay gap is a whopping 57%.

Where the ‘lean in’ debate can get mired in a battle over whether the onus should be on women or the men around them to fix the problem, What Works depersonalises, focusing more often on the ‘how’ than the ‘who’. Bohnet makes the case for treating humans as complicated and fallible beings: long on aspiration but occasionally short on execution. In much the same way as pension defaults have successfully used smart, human-centred choice architecture to generate the right outcome, Bohnet takes the same level of optimism to gender equality. Thinking hard about the environments in which we make decisions is as important has having the best of intentions. In her own words:

“Building on what works, behavioural design creates better and fairer organizations and societies. It will not solve all our gender-related problems, but it will move the needle, and often at shockingly low cost and high speed.”

Often this means being smarter about how we use and analyse data, and letting technology do some of the heavy lifting. Many of these insights have shaped our new digital recruitment platform, Applied, for which Professor Bohnet serves as an advisor.

This is a book that offers much for the well-meaning decision-maker, and its insights, if implemented, stand to benefit not only women, but underrepresented groups across the board.


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