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Is Gender Equality A Design Problem?

Simple redesigns of working life can make big differences in helping women overcome institutional biases.

Because humans are naturally biased—we evolved to use stereotypes to help us quickly make sense of the world, even if those stereotypes are often wrong—it's hard to eliminate bias through good intentions, or through regulations and policies. But maybe design can help.

In a new book called What Works: Gender Equality by Design, Harvard University researcher Iris Bohnet looks at how simple behavioral nudges, something she calls "behavioral design," can start to tackle bias in how employers see women.

Even those who assume they aren't biased often are. In an audition for a professional orchestra, a panel of judges may be convinced that they're solely focused on the music. But gender matters; until the 1970s, orchestras were 95% male. After the Boston Symphony introduced a design intervention—a curtain to hide musicians as they audition—women had a 50% better chance of advancing in the hiring process.

While a curtain might not help at a typical job interview, Bohnet lays out other strategies for improving equality in hiring, all based on research. Comparing candidates' joint evaluations, for example, makes employers more likely to compare candidates to each other rather than to the evaluator's unconscious version of an ideal candidate (usually a white male).

Even a simple change such as adding portraits of female leaders to the wall of an office can make female employees better leaders themselves.

None of the nudges Bohnet suggests are particularly complicated—and there's really no reason for companies not to try them. As she writes in the book:

There is no design-free world. Organizations have to decide how to search for and select future employees. How they advertise open positions, where they post the job openings, how they evaluate applicants, how they create a short list, how they interview candidates, and how they make their final selections are all part of choice architecture. Why not design a bit more thoughtfully, increasing the chances that the best people are hired?

The book is available from Harvard University Press.

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