“Unconscious bias” and “pipeline problems” have become diversity buzzwords to explain the lack of women in positions of power and leadership in organisations.
Yet, science and statistics reveal these excuses as the strawmen they are, because talking about bias increases bias. Some of the most biased persons are also not only aware of their biases but feel that their biases are completely justified and unapologetically express them. Remember the English biochemist and Nobel laureate, Tim Hunt? He brazenly announced that women are not only too emotional for science, but they are also disruptive to men’s scientific accomplishments. This was only 6 short years ago.
Similarly, our female talent pipeline has been packed with more educated women than men—including here in the UK—for decades in many cases. However, equal representation is also no automatic cure, as gender bias persists in fields with strong female representation (e.g., veterinary sciences), particularly by those who believe gender bias is already solved.
So, how can we make real progress towards gender equality in organisations?
Based on recent advances in diversity science and behavioural economics, the evidence suggests we might be able to make real progress by design.
Managers and organisations can implement design-inspired interventions for various decisions and applications, although the early career phase is perhaps the most critical, given that this is when we lose most of our trained female talent in paid employment. Several steps can be taken:
- During recruitment, implementing longer shortlists increases consideration of female candidates, particularly in male-dominated fields (e.g., technology).
- Blind applications or auditions within recruitment may hold promise in reducing sex-based selection decisions, as shown in a study of orchestra auditions.(1)
- More gender-balanced teams eliminate male-advantages shown in leadership evaluations of male-dominated teams. With more equal gender composition in teams, men and women leaders are viewed as more similarly representative of their teams, and are thus rated as similarly leader-like and trustworthy.
- More generally, taking more time to make decisions and suppressing positive biases (i.e., those that often advantage men such as ascribing them with more competence, confidence, and leadership potential) also shows promise in improving hiring and promotion decisions.
At the same time, knowing what not to do is as important as what to do. Here are some strategies to avoid:
- While quotas for short-lists in recruitment may sound appealing, if there’s only one woman in the candidate pool, there is statistically no chance that she will be hired.
- Requiring more women to serve in selection committees does not increase the quantity or quality of female candidates qualifying for positions; this hinges on the false assumption that women may be more favourable towards female candidates, and it may also make male evaluators less favourable towards female candidates.
- Brief, online, stand-alone diversity training is largely ineffective for creating long- term behaviour change in employees (other than those who are already highly supportive of women).
- Suppressing negative biases (i.e., those that often disadvantage women, such as ascribing them less competence, confidence, and leadership potential, or ascribing them more family conflict and less promotability) does not work and usually backfires.
- Last, but certainly not least, training women to be more confident, agentic, and “leader-like” (i.e., “fix-the-women approaches”) often backfire because these women are viewed as aggressive and may even trigger moral outrage. This is on top of the time these leaders lost in training while their male peers continued ‘business as usual.’ Indeed, individual interventions—e.g., telling women they simply need to ‘lean in’—are generally ineffective strategies to solve persistent, pervasive, and systemic societal problems such as gender bias and inequality.
The strategies highlighted here tend to target critical career decisions rather than everyday interactions or the greater work cultures that contribute to the more complicated, somewhat daunting ‘labyrinth of leadership’ that professional women face. These are key limitations, because modern bias and discrimination are increasingly subtle and toxic work cultures may drive women out quickly after these interventions have brought women into organizations. Thus, leadership, accountability, and vigilance are also key for sustained diversity success.
We’ve heard it over and over—and we’ll hear it again this International Women’s Day: achieving gender equality takes time. While there’s no silver bullet, we can work towards more gender equality at work by design.
(1) However, this may be potentially time-consuming or even impossible in some cases (e.g., letters of recommendations), and this strategy may backfire if evaluators were already implicitly favouring female applicants.