Monday, October 28, 2013

If you can’t change the player, change the game

How many times have you heard people try to deny that they are prejudiced by saying that “some of my best friends are” black, gay, Republican, or women? I’ll bet it’s all too often.

Try as we might, most of us have some kind of latent bias that keeps us from being completely objective, even when we really want to be. Of course, too many of us are also pretty openly prejudiced. Both of these views get in the way of two things: equity and efficiency.

By equity, I mean that women in particular are underrepresented in most places of power---corporate boards, elected office, etc---in proportion to their population. By efficiency, I mean that there are tangible economic benefits to including different people, and women in particular, in decision-making.

According to Professor Iris Bohnet, Director of WAPPP and Academic dean at the Kennedy School, who presented her work on “Gender and Decision-Making” this week, women’s smaller appetites for risk-taking, more tempered competitiveness, and complementary perspectives may account for these contributions.

So how do we overcome these unintended biases and maximize these benefits?

One answer may lie in understanding and fixing “evaluation bias”. We often assess things based on factors completely unrelated to the thing itself. Our evaluations are often driven by the context around the subject, or our other assumptions or preconceived notions.

The Chubb Illusion: We think the center squares are different colors because of their surroundings 

For example, in many Indian villages people didn’t typically associate ‘leadership’ with women largely because they had rarely seen female leaders. But in 1993, women were required by a constitutional amendment to serve as the head of village councils, or Panchayat Raj, in one-third of all Indian villages---a change that familiarized the electorate with female leadership, and paved the way for further elections of women. (In 2011, 50% of all seats had to be filled by women).

This legislative change was a “nudge” in the right direction. By changing the context a little bit, people’s perceptions changed a little bit too. So if we adjust the process of hiring in different firms so that, for instance, candidates are referred to as “people” rather than as a “man” or “woman,” decision-makers might not be primed by their gender-based association, and instead choose based on merits alone. Similarly, if a school has to hire 5 professors in a year, it makes sense to hire them all at once, so any gender imbalances are immediately obvious when they’re seen in a single group---rather than letting gender slip past the radar in one-off hirings.

To tweak a phrase used by the rapper Ice T, if we can’t change the player, change the game. 

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