Striving for gender equality in organisations continues to be an
important goal, but unconscious bias remains an obstacle for changing mindsets.
Gender equality is a moral and
a business imperative: “We should care because gender equality is a human
right, and for some people it really is a question of life and death,” Iris
Bohnet told a recent Gibs forum.
Professor of public policy at
the Harvard Kennedy School and the director of its women and public policy
programme, Bohnet expanded upon ideas contained in her book What Works, which
offers insights from behavioural economics to help us de-bias.
Encouraging diversity in hiring
diversity training programmes
have had limited success in de-biasing organisations and specific interventions
are needed due to the power of implicit bias.
“Categorical thinking means we
unconsciously put people into boxes. If don’t see many female venture
capitalist or many male kindergarten teachers, we don’t associate them with
Bohnet said changes in the
talent acquisition process would “make it easier for our minds to get things
right” in order to move the needle enough so as to make a difference.
information from job applications, instituting work sample tests and structured
interviews as a final step were some of the changes she suggested to the hiring
While there are many
gender-specific product advertisements, we should be as rigorous in our talent
advertisements, as the adjectives used in these could unconsciously attracts
male or female applicants, Bohnet explained.
Work sample tests are the “very
best predictor of performance” as they mimic what the person will be doing in
the day-to-day role.
Structured interviews should then be used as a final step
in the process, as unintentional bias means our minds are incapable of
filtering out noise from the useful information.
“Diversity on the hiring
committee itself won’t necessarily solve the problem, as many biases are
shared. Organisations need to have the right processes in place to help people
see talent where it is, rather than where their affiliations might lie.”
Obstacles to promotion within
the organisation often start early, with traditionally underrepresented groups
such as women and people of colour often excluded from projects of
“By the time you are up for
promotion, you have a ‘thin file’ because you were never given the opportunity
to participate. We have to go back and see how people were developed, or not,
Biases are most evident in the
case of assessing for potential future roles: “We can’t imagine women in
certain roles or level of jobs if there are no previous role models.”
The power of role models, on
both individual and organisational levels, should not be underestimated Bohnet
Having traditionally underrepresented groups in visible leadership
positions can make a big difference.
“Through exposure, eventually
Similarly, it is essential to
learn from role model organisations that have “been able to crack the nut by
de-biasing the organisation”.
These are companies who have
achieved diversity through broad interventions from the top, including quotas,
broad recruitment, development and making sure there isn’t performance support
bias in order to give everyone an equal opportunity.
Organisations should think of
ways to make principles of diversity behaviourally relevant Bohnet said: “Don’t
just write codes of conduct, as no one is going to live them.”
The obstacle of women not
helping other women progress in their careers seems to be diminishing:
is some hope. This tends to be more likely among the first generation of women,
who had to break through male barriers, adapt and adjust their behaviour to be
like men in order to make it.
"We see much less with second or third generation
of women leaders,” Bohnet explained.
groups usually gain power in one of two ways: Either through forging coalitions
with other “weak players” or by associating with the powerful.
“More and more women in senior
positions look after women in more junior roles as they don’t feel that hiring
another woman would undermine their own authority.”
While many organisations have
not done enough to sufficiently diversify, they are not the only entities which
should promote change, Bohnet concluded.
Encouraging diversity at country or
government level requires discovering which possible triggers, such a social
recognition through ranking indices, can achieve this.
While South Africa’s focus on
inequality is mostly concerned with economic factors, there is scope for the
conversation to be extended to explore the intersection of economic inequality
and gender inequality so as to encourage de-biasing on multiple levels.