Designing in gender equality

Howard Roizen is a successful entrepreneur, confident and accomplished. When his story is studied in Business Schools, students that are given him to assess rate him highly. But the truth is that he doesn’t exist. ‘He’ is Heidi, a real life case study written up by Kathleen McGinn of Harvard Business School. When students are given her story, identical in every other respect, what they perceive is a degree of arrogance and self-promotion.

The reason, explains economist Iris Bohnet in her book, What Works: gender equality by design, is unconscious bias. The stereotype for Heidi is closer to the traditional fables of women and it is this stereotype that frames people’s response. The same unconscious bias can hold back and exclude men from caring roles, she adds.

 US companies spend $8 billion every year on diversity training, she estimates, and yet little if any of this is proven to change attitudes or outcomes. What is needed instead are tools and techniques to remove bias in a systematic way.

Iris is a lecturer at the Kennedy School in Harvard, and I have had the privilege of being taught by her on two short courses over recent years. In her book, eagerly awaited, she opens with a wonderful example of how to de-bias decisions:

“As late as 1970, only 5% of musicians performing in the top five orchestras in the United States were women. Today, women compose more than 35% of the most acclaimed orchestras, and they play great music. This did not happen by chance. Rather, it required the introduction of blind auditions. The Boston Symphony Orchestra was the first to ask musicians to audition behind a screen, and in the 1970s and 1980s most other major orchestras followed suit. When they did so, usually in preliminary rounds, it raised the likelihood that a female musician would advance by 50% and substantially increased the proportion of women hired.”

It is not enough to believe in equality. In our unconscious, we inevitably draw on stereotypes, shortcuts, that we have drawn from the culture and tradition around us. Changing those is possible over time, where there are new role models and new rules set, but in the meantime, to act on equality – for gender, race or other difference – means finding intelligent ways to bypass our unconscious bias.


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