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Practical Designs to Improve Gender Balance

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  • 16 May
  • by Susan Jansen
  • Attract

I don’t believe in unconscious bias training.

Controversial, I know. My confidence in making such a bold statement grows as the research starts to confirm my personal experience with it.

Like many leaders, I was put on a mandatory course with a hundred or so colleagues in the top three layers of the organisation.  We were educated, tested, shuffled uncomfortably as we found out our unconscious biases and even had one on one coaching on the findings.

Looking to these leaders and their teams now, four years later, they have not made progress.

The reason isn’t a lack of willingness or good intent.  It’s that de-biasing minds is hard.  Iris Bohnet, Harvard professor and behavioural economist concluded a meta-analysis of twenty-one studies aimed at suppressing bias simply did not work. In extreme cases:

“Instructions to resist stereotypes had the opposite effect, making stereotypes more salient and leading to an increase in biased judgements”

So how do we create change?

We still need to understand bias and how it impacts decision making, but instead of relying on awareness we need to redesign smart businesses processes to eliminate or reduce it.

Below is a Q&A on the most common questions we receive about stereotypes and the best actions to take based on our experiences.

What are stereotypes?

Stereotypes are widely-held, generalised beliefs we have about people. They are normal. Our brains use stereotypes as a cognitive shortcut to process large quantities of information.

What impact do stereotypes have on decision making?

While stereotypes allow our brains to process information quickly, they lead to errors in decision making. Using the shortcuts, we assess people by the beliefs we hold about their stereotype instead of evaluating the facts required to make a good decision.

How do stereotypes impact women?

A large body of research concludes gender stereotypes are harsh on women at work.  This means women face:

  • More doubt of their expertise
  • Heavier scrutiny of their performance
  • The need to repeatedly to prove competence
  • A backlash when stereotypical expectations aren’t met
  • Less influence and credit for ideas

(Note gender stereotypes are hard on men too. Just in different ways Why Gender Equality is Good For All)

What does that really mean? Do you have an example? 


The CV of a fictitious PhD candidate was distributed to several universities to evaluate their appropriateness for an Associate Professor role.  Half the evaluators received the CV with a man’s name, the other half received the CV with a woman’s name. The name was the only difference between the CVs.  The evaluators were then asked to rate the candidate on worthiness for hire.

The Results
  • 79% of evaluators deemed the male candidate worthy of hire
  • 49% of evaluators deemed the female candidate worthy of hire
  • Women received 400% more “doubt raising” statements e.g.

 “I need to see evidence she’s done this on her own”

This shows many of us, despite our good intentions, unknowingly let stereotypes impact our decisions.  It also highlights how hard women find it to progress when decision-making is stacked against them.

Is there something we can do equalise the situation?

Yes.  And it’s not the current solutions many organisations are trying today.

The answer lies in smart, simple changes focused on behavioural design.   By behavioural design, we mean crafting business processes, systems and decision making criteria to influence human behaviour, eliminating (or at least reducing) the impact of gender stereotypes.   Effectively, we change the system with organisational solutions instead of relying on people to overcome their own biases.

A powerful example of smart behavioural design can be seen in the hotel industry.  Frustrated by guests leaving lights on and wasting power, hotels tried to create change by leaving notes on pillows, signs on light switches and glossy magazines about the environmental impact.   Yet all initiatives failed.

Hotels finally achieved success by redesigning rooms and forcing guests to use the room key to switch on power.   Smart design never relies on people to remember to do the right thing, it bakes the right behaviour into the process.

How Does that Translate into Action? 

  1. Recruitment

There are seven powerful changes that improve the recruitment process.  Some examples include:

  • Rewriting job ads
  • Removing candidate names
  • Redefining (and rethinking) clear criteria
  • Standardising questions
  • Replacing panels with 1 on 1 interviews and real time scoring
  • Rethinking the decision making process and holding leaders accountable through peer reviews

Small, inexpensive changes deliver dramatic changes.   There are also several apps available to make the changes more efficient.

  1. Talent & Promotions

Create a level playing field for talent and promotions by ensuring people (especially men) advocate strongly for a woman’s competence and skills through sponsorship. Make sure the criteria is clear with a strong weighting on potential.   Senior female leaders do better when supported with hypercare programs for stretch roles and a trustworthy senior mentor.

  1. Goals & Accountability – You Get What You Measure
  • Set achievable, sustainable, transparent goals.
  • Post numbers and keep track of progress
  • Make sure your CEO is visibly walking the talk

A CEW study found the CEO walking the talk on gender equality to be one the most important factors to ensure women want to progress.  If you are looking for a great example, look no further than Paul Polman, the ever-inspiring CEO of Unilever.

At Balance Now, we can help you determine the right changes to make and implement them successfully.  We offer 18 different experiments to help you move the dial.  If you’d like to know more read How We Create Change or Discover your WOW Score and Contact Us

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