Professor Bohnet is the Director of the HKS Women and Public Policy Program and Co-chair of the Behavioral Insights Group at the Center for Public Leadership at HKS. Her research demonstrates a powerful truth: No matter how well-intentioned they are, people can still fall prey to bias. Instead of trying to break people of these often unintentional biases, we should be looking to organizational design to “make it easier for all of us to do the right thing.”
The limits of diversity training
Professor Bohnet began with a survey of existing interventions to overcome bias in the workplace, including diversity training, negotiation training, leadership training, mentorship and sponsorship, and networking. Despite being a billion-dollar industry, the evidence on diversity training is mixed. After hundreds of studies, it is hard to be optimistic about diversity training, if only because it is incredibly difficult to de-bias minds. Beyond stereotypical thinking, humans rely on a number of other cognitive shortcuts that are very difficult to unlearn.
The rest of these interventions are geared toward helping women navigate the workforce more effectively. One critique of this approach is that it places the onus of fixing gender discrimination on women. However, it is important to be pragmatic and to consider how these methods can be helpful. The evidence from mentorship and sponsorship networks is particularly encouraging. Female economists who participated in mentorship training workshops were more productive, more likely to publish in peer-reviewed journals, and more likely to get tenure. This is some of the best causal evidence to date about the impact of mentorship and sponsorship and demonstrates the positive impact of these interventions.
Using behavioral insights to move the needle
Behavioral insights and organizational design present an opportunity to develop novel interventions to decrease bias and improve diversity. For organizations looking to attract the best candidates, Professor Bohnet suggests they look at the language in their job advertisements. She presented a job advertisement for a teacher reading in part, “Looking for a warm and caring teacher with exceptional pedagogical and interpersonal skills to work in a supportive, collaborative work environment.” Gendered language like this resonates with women rather than men and can inhibit great male teachers from applying. And with boys falling about a year behind girls in reading and writing by age 15, partially because of the lack of male role models among their teachers, it makes a difference.
There are numerous behavioral interventions that workplaces can develop to overcome bias. Two simple things organizations can start with: get rid of “potential” rankings in employee evaluation, and stop managers from seeing employees’ self-evaluations before giving their own rankings. There is an enormous amount of bias in potential rankings. In another iteration of “seeing is believing,” a lack of female senior partners at a firm may lead to biased thinking that women don’t have the potential or desire to ascend the career ladder. While it’s not clear how to get rid of this bias, it is simple enough to remove potential rankings altogether in evaluating employees. Similarly, there can be a significant difference in employee rankings. On average, women are inclined to give themselves lower self-evaluation scores than men. If managers can see employees’ self-evaluations before making their own judgments, they may be influenced by these scores and give women lower scores (and men higher) than they otherwise would. Instead, the manager could have conversations with team members about their performance, but wait to see a numerical self-evaluation until after they have made their own evaluations. These two findings are low-hanging fruit for organizations looking to reduce workplace bias; research increasingly shows that mindsets change once behavior has changed, and these low-impact methods reduce the effect of bias in the workplace.
Gender diversity in teams
In recent years, the “business case for diversity”—evidence that more diverse organizations do better than those that are more homogeneous—has attracted a lot of attention. A meta-analysis of 120 studies finds a small diversity premium for diverse corporate boards. However, these studies are just observational: it could be that diversity really does pay, or that companies that are high-performing are also more inclusive. One study measuring collective intelligence found that gender diverse teams outperformed homogeneous teams on each of the tested tasks. Gender diverse teams demonstrated complementary skill sets and a greater tendency to listen to and build on others’ ideas. Gender diverse teams are much more likely to avoid groupthink, which increases their effectiveness.
However, Professor Bohnet emphasized, we should care about gender equality because it’s the right thing to do, not just because of the business case for diversity. In closing, she discussed several organizational improvements that could encourage equitable behavior, including a “comply or explain” system for corporate diversity. Goal setting, transparency, and accountability all play a crucial role in changing behavior and, by extension, changing mindsets. Professor Bohnet’s book is available on March 4—be on the lookout for more bias-reducing, diversity-maximizing insights!