Re-posted from HKS Magazine
In many ways, last fall was a notable moment for women. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, MC/MPA 1971, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with countrywoman Leymah Gbowee and Yemen’s Tawakul Karman. IBM named Virginia Rometty the first female CEO in the company’s 100-year history. Hillary Clinton made a high-profile trip to Burma — the first secretary of state to do so in 50 years.
Women around the globe are changing the political and economic landscape, and substantial progress has been made in advancing women’s equality in a number of areas. However, this progress has been slow. The gender imbalance in leadership positions in business and government remains palpable and has hardly changed over the past decade; only 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and fewer than 20 percent of parliamentary seats are held by women worldwide. Perhaps even more worrisome are the staggering numbers of women who are “missing” in Asia — 117 million is a conservative estimate — owing to sex-selective abortion, infanticide, or neglect during early childhood.
Evidence-based reasoning is at the core of the Women and Public Policy Program (known within HKS by its acronym, WAPPP). Its mission is simple: to close gender gaps in economic opportunity, political participation, health, and education by creating knowledge, training leaders, and informing public policy and organizational practices.
“Essentially, we identify the structures, policies, and practices that help close gender gaps,” says Iris Bohnet, WAPPP’s faculty director, a professor of public policy, and the academic dean. “We also consider how women can better navigate within existing conditions.” She cites From Harvard Square to the Oval Office, a program that provides training and support to selected Harvard graduate students interested in entering electoral politics at the local, state, or national level. It was created and is chaired by WAPPP Executive Director Victoria Budson MC/MPA 2002 (see below).
WAPPP was launched in 1997 during the tenure of Dean Joseph S. Nye, Jr., under the leadership of founding director, ambassador, and longtime human rights activist Swanee Hunt, now the Eleanor Roosevelt Lecturer in Public Policy. It grew into one of the leading research centers on gender in public policy and leadership with the support of Harvard Kennedy School’s Women’s Leadership Board and a number of other friends and supporters.
Bohnet is among a number of faculty affiliates from the Kennedy School and across Harvard who are conducting research related to WAPPP’s mission. Initially, however, her work on decision making didn’t seem to have immediate implications for gender-related issues. “It took a little while to realize that my old research spoke to my new life,” she says. “I had been looking at mistakes that people make, or decision traps, and realized it was possible to think about stereotyping in the same way.”
Research has shown that people are often influenced by implicit societal biases and that these biases tend to result in irrational decisions that run counter to available information. The roots of this behavior are unconscious, making it that much more difficult to address.
With that understanding, Bohnet looked for ways to help people make better-informed decisions. Drawing on research showing that decisions can be “nudged” depending on how various options are presented, Bohnet and her colleagues Max Bazerman, the Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration at HBS, and Alexandra van Geen, a doctoral student at HKS, found that people were less likely to rely on easy stereotypes to make a hiring decision when multiple job candidates were presented simultaneously and evaluated comparatively than when candidates were presented one at a time. “If we can compare things, we analyze them much more rationally,” she summarizes. “When we look at them singly, we tend to base our decisions on instinct and intuition, which can lead to stereotyping.”
Putting those findings into practice is an important priority for WAPPP. Bohnet notes that there are often multiple candidates for entry-level positions, but the field narrows considerably for higher-level positions and promotions, making a one-at-a-time evaluation scenario more likely. “We’re helping one company try out nudges by providing information to the managing directors responsible for promotions about women who have advanced in the past so that it registers in their minds that women should be considered,” she says. “It shows that you can change organizational practices in slight ways without forcing or punishing people.”
“Our faculty research on replicable interventions that provide data-driven solutions to policy problems will soon become available through an online Gender Action Portal,” says Victoria Budson. “When major companies and heads of government come to us and ask where and how they should invest their philanthropic and public service dollars, we can help answer that.”
Recently, the question of gender quotas has been making headlines as an increasing number of governments and corporations adopt mandates for female representation. A flashpoint for controversy in the United States, quotas in some form are currently used by the governments of half the world’s countries.
“A big question that often arises is whether or not quotas could have a bad effect in the long run by creating the perception that women are in positions of power because they didn’t face any competition,” says Rohini Pande, the Mohammed Kamal Professor of Public Policy and a member of WAPPP’s faculty advisory committee.
To answer that question, Pande and a team of researchers went to India, where quotas specify that one-third of village council representatives and village council chiefs be women. “Because quotas are rotating in and out between electoral cycles,” she says, “we were able to look at whether or not voters continued to elect women if they didn’t have to, or if there was a backlash effect where they completely rejected all women.”
There was no such effect. After one electoral cycle with quotas, the likelihood of villages’ electing women in a non-quota cycle roughly doubled. Pande found that exposure to women in elected office also resulted in a fundamental change in the willingness of voters to think of women in leadership positions. In another finding, the number of girls who attended school in villages that had experienced two rounds of gender quota elections increased by 8 percent, erasing the gender gap.
“Gender research is a fascinating way to think about issues in development,” says Pande, who has also done extensive work in the area of microfinance. “As a development economist, I can look at market failure and how that manifests itself in different ways for women, which leads to broader insights into what is holding back development in a given country.”
The question of what is holding women back in the workplace serves as a focus for Hannah Riley Bowles’s research on the role of gender in negotiation. “Negotiation is obviously an important process in the attainment of leadership positions,” says Bowles, an associate professor of public policy. “My work centers on trying to understand why we see different outcomes for men and women in job negotiations and what organizations and women can do about those differential outcomes.”
Bowles has found that women generally have less opportunity than men to negotiate for career advancement and that women pay a higher social cost than men for negotiating: In multiple studies of Americans with work experience, evaluators were significantly less inclined to work with female employees who negotiated for higher compensation. “If I alienate key people early in my career, that can affect my career trajectory and my long-term earnings,” she notes, adding that some of her newer work tests scripts that make it clear that the negotiator is aware of the organization’s structure and priorities, thus increasing her chances of achieving her social and negotiation objectives.
“Sometimes people get frustrated with the idea that a woman would have to do this,” says Bowles. “I’m very sympathetic with that, but at the same time I don’t think women should have to sit around waiting for society to change.” Her findings have implications for racial identities and lower-status men as well: “It’s not just a gender effect; it’s a broader social effect that reinforces social hierarchies.”
Bowles also finds that ambiguity around appropriate zones for compensation and norms for negotiating behavior inhibit women. “It’s the watercooler effect,” she says. “In male-dominated organizations in which career information travels through social networks, men are likely to have better information about how one negotiates for career advancement than women because they are more likely to be connected to that dominant coalition that runs the organization.” Bowles and her colleagues discovered an $11,000 gender gap in MBA salaries at companies with high-ambiguity environments; in low-ambiguity environments they found no gender effects.
Finally, Bowles teases out the implications of negotiation as a two-level game. “You can’t understand gender effects on job negotiations if you only look at employer-employee relations,” she explains. “Negotiations with employers are contingent on negotiations at home.” It’s a scenario familiar to any working mother: With only 24 hours in a day to fulfill work, household, and caregiving duties, there are inherent limitations to how much a woman can take on that men traditionally don’t face. “We need to think harder about creative solutions like flexible work schedules,” says Bowles. “With flexible work schedules, the employer can get more work hours out of the employee, who can in turn be on call at critical caregiving hours and now has more money to spend on household labor.”
An important takeaway is that the gender gap is not due to women’s negotiating deficiencies or to superior abilities in men. Interestingly, when asked to negotiate on behalf of others, the women in Bowles’s studies performed as well as, if not better than, the men.
As faculty director of the Kennedy School’s Women & Power executive program, Bowles also engages with public, private, and nonprofit leaders from around the world. “It motivates and informs my research,” she says, while WAPPP provides underlying support for that work.
Society will continue to change, and with it, the role of women. In the meantime, WAPPP serves as a gathering point for the “why” and “how” of closing the gender gap, wherever it exists.
“Gender is a huge part of public policy,” says Rohini Pande. “We need a center like WAPPP that can move us away from the purely activist approach and toward an analytical research perspective that creates positive change in the world.”
Julia Hanna is a freelance writer living in Acton, Massachusetts.
A strong benchMassachusetts State Representative Lori Ehrlich MPA 2005 never thought she would run for office. She applied to WAPPP’s From Harvard Square to the Oval Office with the idea that the program’s training in the hard skills of campaigning would be helpful in getting someone else with good ideas elected.
Ehrlich had already seen the value of working within the system to effect change. One day in 1997, she called her small children into their Marblehead home and was surprised to see the tiny black footprints they left on the white tile floor. Soot — from the coal-burning Salem Harbor Power Plant — covered the deck. “That led me on a path of learning and advocacy for a regulatory solution, beginning with different state energy agencies and elected officials,” she recalls. “I came to appreciate that you can have great ideas, but until you work the political side of things you’re not going to get too much accomplished.”
Harvard Square to the Oval Office offers seminars on honing a message, giving speeches, creating effective ads, organizing a field team, and grassroots activism in a technological age. The program also brings in elected women leaders from all levels of government to share their experiences. Past guests include Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Congresswoman Ann Northrup. “They share what it took to get elected and what they wish they’d known at the time,” says WAPPP Executive Director Victoria Budson.
Ehrlich’s experience in the program changed her mind about running for office. “Once I had the campaign skills in my toolbox, I decided to go for it,” she says simply. Currently serving her third term, Ehrlich continues to be active in issues around energy and the environment. (The power plant that launched her journey is scheduled to close in 2014.)
“Holding elected office is a relatively new development for women,” says Ehrlich, who returned to campus last fall to address the new cohort of selected students. “This program fortifies the bench and provides the skills and role models needed for success.”
Choosing a pathSince 2005, WAPPP’s Cultural Bridge Fellowship has provided the resources for Kennedy School students to work on gender-specific projects in developing countries. Over the years, the list of their destinations has included Liberia, Colombia, India, and Sudan, among others.
Afreen Akhter, MPP 2011, traveled to Afghanistan in the summer of 2010 to work with Shuhada, an NGO dedicated to the welfare of Afghan citizens with an emphasis on women and children. The recipient of a Presidential Management Fellowship, Akhter is currently working on the Pakistan desk at the U.S. State Department, a position she attributes to her experience in Afghanistan.
“Our goal is to provide the resources that will help individuals interested in gender policy set their career trajectory,” says WAPPP Executive Director Victoria Budson. “The fellowship program offers robust experiential learning opportunities.” “I’m very pleased with how things have worked out,” says Akhter, who is also writing a book about President Obama’s foreign policy with David Sanger, an adjunct lecturer in public policy and chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times. “WAPPP was wonderfully instrumental in facilitating my professional path.”