Iris Bohnet Promotes Changing Design Over Mindsets

Iris Bohnet, is the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, the Academic Dean of Harvard Kennedy Schooland author of What Works: Gender Equality by Design. Don’t miss an equal parts insightful and inspiring interview!

An indisputable leader in the field, Iris Bohnet is a behavioral economist who combines insights from economics and psychology to improve decision-making in organizations.

She has helped companies and governments across the globe use behavioral design research to de-bias how we live, work and learn. We had a chance to meet her at a recent conversation at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City.

Iris Bohnet at Council on Foreign Relations

Iris Bohnet at Council on Foreign Relations

Red Shoe Movement—At the recent Women and the Lawconference at the Council on Foreign Relations you mentioned that you are hopeful about the state of the gender equality conversation despite the fact that we keep talking about the problem when there are already very well researched solutions. Where does your optimism come from?

Iris Bohnet—My optimism is based on the demands that I see for the solutions. I did not see this 10 years ago. Back then, we didn’t have evidence about what worked. And we didn’t have a demand from companies and governments from different countries asking for help with these interventions. However, let me qualify my optimism because I fall prey of what we call selection bias. I’m responding to organizations that are reaching out to me. So, this is a self-selected group of organizations interested in this issue, and it’s not a representative sample of companies in the U.S. But by now I’ve worked with 50-100 companies around the world. Apparently, there’s enough movement in the space for all these companies to reach out and ask for help on this issue.

RSM— What are some good practices for women who don’t work in HR who wish to contribute to de-biasing their organizations?

IB—Let’s start with people who are not in managerial roles. Everyone can be a micro-sponsor. Everyone can play the role of watching out for micro-inequities or -aggressions. For example, if you make a comment in a meeting and then it’s repeated by John, I could bring this fact up easier than you can. And hopefully I can do it with tact and not in an adversarial manner. That’s an example of micro-sponsorship. I can thank John for building on your comment and then, bring the discussion back to you so that you can own it. And it can be done by women and by men. Everyone can pay attention to these patterns of exclusion.

When you have a managerial role you have more responsibilities in leading meetings, giving feedback during appraisals, and offering people opportunities to grow. Women may not be sent to leadership training or not offered a higher salary because they don’t ask for it as they fear backlash. Unfortunately, feedback is fraught with bias. Women and people of color often get less useful feedback. Managers can check that they help everyone grow. The best predictor of people’s satisfaction with their job is a good manager, so they have a great role to play every day.

Iris Bohnet award winning book

Iris Bohnet award winning book

RSM—Of all the interventions you propose in your book, which ones have you seen consistently implemented successfully?

IB—Probably the one picked up most is the debiasing of language in job advertising. It’s easy to do because HR doesn’t have to reinvent their practices. It’s an ad-on to what they are already doing.  The second advantage is that is a no-brainer because organizations want to cast a wide net and attract a wide range of talent. This intervention is not costly.  You can develop your own algorithm or work with one of the start-ups such as Applied or Textio offering the tool, and the system then does the work.

RSM—Do you see a major shift in gender dynamics as Generation Z enters the workplace? How do you think the current dynamic will change or not?

IB—I truly don’t know. I haven’t studied this generation specifically. It appears from surveys that both men and women are more interested in work-life balance. They have more demands about the time they spend outside of work. They are looking for self -fulfilment and self-realization. The younger generation asks a lot about purpose at work. The meaning of what they do is important to them. This will likely impact gender dynamics but we don’t really have the data yet to show how.

Iris Bohnet on gender equality design

Iris Bohnet on gender equality design

Advice by Iris Bohnet on reaching men

RSM— What do you say to men who are “tired” of all the gender equality talk. The pushback of the #MeToo movement? It seems to force women to once again, protect men’s feelings before their own.

IB—It depends on the men. I’d say there are two categories. On the one hand you have those men who care but are tired because we’ve talked about it for so many years, they’ve gone through diversity training programs, they’ve seen their companies implement leadership programs for women and still don’t see a change. To them, I’d say, we’ve done the wrong things. We tried to change mindsets or women. What we’re doing today is different than what we’ve done so far. Our approach is based on research, it’s new and different from what we’ve done before. It builds on evidence of what works.

On the other hand, there’s the category of men who don’t care and don’t think we have a problem. People who love homogeneity and are comfortable with people who look like them. This is a bigger problem and it requires a different approach. This group needs less talk and more action. These are people who don’t want to move from A to B. They are comfortable in A. For them, we need to look at a social movement. Figure out how to promote change even when people don’t see that gender inequity is real and a violation of human rights.

RSM—For many years, we’ve all looked at the business case for inclusion and encouraged women to bring up the metrics to conversations around this topic. Do you believe that’s still the best approach to get an organization to get behind inclusion at the highest levels of decision-making? Or have we arrived at a place where you can answer “it’s not just good business is the moral and ethical thing to do to support 100% of your talent”?

IB—I think we need to use both approaches. We always have to talk about human rights. But the business case is helpful. But even the two approaches together are not enough. There is a third piece that we need to add: We have to help people follow their virtuous intentions. It’s like healthy eating. We can make the case that it’s good for you to eat healthily but even if you believe that eating more vegetables is the right and the smart thing to do, it doesn’t happen automatically. We have to help people work through their intentions in a practical way. You have to debias systems and not start by debiasing mindsets. Eventually, good behavior changes mindsets. But it takes time.

Iris Bohnet sharing about gender equality by design

Iris Bohnet sharing about gender equality by design

Iris Bohnet’s suggestions for best inclusion practices

RSM— If you had to recommend one best practice for fostering gender inclusion in an organization, what would it be?

IB—I don’t think there is the one silver bullet that will solve all our issues. And which one you start with depends on where the organization is in its journey. If an organization is at the beginning of its journey, I’d say measure. Understand what’s going on before you throw money at the problem. Who are you hiring, what are the pay gaps, who’s leaving, what’s the climate? What doesn’t get measured not only doesn’t count but it also can’t be fixed.

RSM— If you had to recommend one best practice for women to reach the highest levels of decision-making, what would it be?

IB—Build a support network inside and outside your organization. People who lift you up and help you navigate the system. It should include mentors, sponsors, friends. And make sure you also have a support system at home. Don’t try to do this alone.

RSM—What do you think of our #RedShoeTuesday campaign?

IB—I like the idea a lot! The red shoes are a signal —the more people wear red shoes the more others will wear them. That’s just human behavior. I like that it’s something visible. My biggest concern is whether enough people own red shoes. (Laughs.) Maybe, you have to decrease the barriers to entry a bit and allow people to wear anything red, a scarf, a hat, a tie. But the idea is great. I often say: seeing is believing!

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