Can gender equality be designed? Overcoming unconscious bias

I was watching CNN’s Fareed Zakaria a few months ago and he was interviewing Iris Bohnet, a behavioral economist at Harvard University.  They were discussing her book, What Works, Gender Equality By Design and why gender equality is a moral and business imperative and how we can achieve it through behavioral design and overcoming unconscious bias.  You can imagine that I was all ears.  I’ve been speaking and writing about unconscious bias for years, and now there is scientific measures and research collected by companies, universities, and governments in many countries to prove it.

We’ve seen so many diversity training programs for many corporations.  So many empowerment initiatives for women.  Why aren’t they working?  We’re not moving the needle…why?  Consider this….

Women in the Workplace 2016, a study conducted by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey, reported that although more than 75% of CEOs include gender equality in their top ten business priorities.  Yet, outcomes are not changing, and women remain largely underrepresented at corridors of power, and alarmingly, every level in the corporate pipeline.  Fact:  Corporate America promotes men at 30 percent higher rates than women during their early career stages, and entry-level women are significantly more likely than men to have spent five or more years in the same role.

This reports highlights two important findings:

  • “Women negotiate for promotions and raises as often as men but face more pushback when they do. Women also receive informal feedback less frequently than men—despite asking for it as often—and have less access to senior-level sponsors. Not surprisingly, women are almost three times more likely than men to think their gender will make it harder to get a raise, promotion, or chance to get ahead.
  • The challenge is even more pronounced for women of color. Compared with white women, women of color face the most barriers and experience the steepest drop-offs with seniority despite having higher aspirations for becoming a top executive. Women of color also report they get less access to opportunities and see a workplace that is less fair and inclusive.”

Why?  It all comes down to unconscious bias.

De-biasing people’s minds isn’t easy….it is time and energy consuming and expensive.  Iris Bohnet suggests that by de-biasing organizations instead of individuals, we can see better results and make small, smart changes that have big impacts.  She presents research-based solutions and tools to make these changes in classrooms and boardrooms, in hiring and promotion in businesses and governments.  It’s done through behavioral designs and creating environments to help us better achieve our goals.  For example, a simple curtain during blind auditions transformed what orchestras look like and doubled the talent pool, and increased women participation by 30%. Her book is filled with examples and data-based research.

Consider this too:  We’ve heard and seen many business cases for gender equality, but have you ever wondered how the true economic returns can be measured if outcomes are based on flawed decision process?  Bias hurts everyone across gender, race, class, caste, ethnicity, nationality, etc.  One of her simulation study showed that bias for only 1% of variance in evolution scores led to 35% of the discriminated-against group being represented at the top–without bias, each group would’ve held 50% of these seats.  Pretty significant!

As a marketer, I have seen gender bias in advertising and marketing for years.  We’re getting better but as long as creative and agency chiefs are mostly men, we continue with our limiting stereotypes activated by subtle cues.  But we don’t hear much about gender bias in advertising job openings and describing the qualifications of a candidate….how we manage talent through test and performance evaluations, and craft school and work environments.

Last year, I met Gay Gaddis, CEO and Founder of T3, the largest woman-owned independent advertising agency in the country.  I wanted to know her success story.  She contributed her success to accountability, personal touch and investing in people and technology.  She shared a story on how she was able to keep her women talent on her largest account.  “4 women on the Dell account got pregnant at the same time, I didn’t want to loose them, so I asked them to bring their babies to work,” she said.  And she crafted a work environment where employees can bring their babies and pets to stay with them while they work.  She retained her best talent and maintained productivity and success.  Gay made a conscious effort and development towards gender equity and her management team is split 50/50 between women and men.  The results speak for themselves.

One of the most common biases against women is the trade off between competence and likability.  What is celebrated in a successful man is perceived as arrogance and self-promotion in a woman,  Basically, women who violate the stereotypical norms pay a social price.  They are perceived as either likable or competent but not both.  Iris Bohnet presented research that proved, again and again, when women are performing stereotypically male jobs, the pattern looks like this:

  • when performance is observable, successful women are rated as less likable then men
  • when performance is ambiguous, successful women are rated as less competent than men

I think this book can be a good start in recognizing your own and your organization’s biases and learning some of the tools and techniques to overcome them…and it shows that small changes can have surprising effects.  Women should not have to choose between likability and competence, nor should societies and organizations be deprived of their best talent.  There is no quick, easy fix to overcome bias.  But first step is awareness.  Are you aware of your own unconscious bias?  Or your organization’s bias?  There needs to be an understanding of the direction and impact of the bias.  Immediate feedback when falling victim to the bias is essential.  I learned years ago in my own executive coaching that a big part of behavior modification is awareness and immediate feedback.  And of course, for organizations, a structured training program with a feedback loop, analysis, cultural change and coaching.

Stereotypes form beliefs.  However groundless those beliefs, women never get a chance to prove these wrong unless we overcome unconscious biases.  In our cognitive makeup, we all match people to existing social categories we have learned to understand and relate to…. But I think once these social categories ranks one over the other as better or worse, regardless of performance and evaluation, we fall into unconscious bias and negative stereotyping.

PS….to read more on gender equality and women studies, click here.

Leave a Reply