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  • Writer's pictureSally Khallash

How to incorporate gender equality in organisational DNA

In 2000, Kathleen McGinn presented a case to students at Harvard Business School. She introduced Howard Roizen, a venture capitalist, former entrepreneur and astute networker who was a power player in Silicon Valley, and who had been good friends with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Students were asked to evaluate Howard’s performance in terms of competence, effectiveness and likeability, and ultimately to decide whether he was the kind of person they would like to employ and work alongside. Not surprisingly, the evaluations he got from students were glowing. However, when students were presented with the exact same case – apart for a change in name from Howard to Heidi – the results were distinctly different. Students did not judge the individual to be likeable, and neither did they want to work with her.

As it turned out, this was not a fictional individual but a real person, and in real life the Roizen in question was Heidi, not Howard. So what was celebrated as entrepreneurship, self-confidence, and vision in a man was perceived as arrogance and self-promotion in a woman.

Are we all just sexists?

It's important to underline, that this is not meant to showcase everyday sexism. Rather, this case and numerous other well-researched examples spotlights the unconscious bias that exists in each of us. These biases are 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.

The many investments in D&I programmes and greater gender balance in firms show that for many businesses, gender equality is both a moral and a business imperative. But unfortunately, the old tools such as diversity training programmes and de-biasing people’s minds has proven to be difficult, expensive and have had limited success.

Why? Because although when we force ourselves to consciously 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, 80-90% of our mind works unconsciously. This means that we are all extremely vulnerable to unconscious gender bias.

So it's not lack of attempt or interest, but simply that individual effort alone often invites backlash.

Upgrade your toolkit with behavioural economics

Behavioural design offers a new solution. Rather then focusing on individuals, de-biasing organisations give us huge advantages in creating smart changes with big impacts.

Designing organisational setups can help remove us from unconscious gender bias, addressing a wide range of gender equality problems: how to get companies to hire more women; how to reduce subconscious gender bias in employee evaluations; how to boost boys’ and girls’ performance in schools, and much more.

The first step of the process of gender de-biasing is to collect 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.

Behavioural design gives us the tools we need to move the needle in classrooms and boardrooms, in hiring and promotion, benefiting businesses, governments, and the lives of millions.

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