Nudging Towards Gender Equality

Published: 10 June 2016

Three key trends in business and government-led policy

We need to embed measures that nudge, and occasionally shove, us in the right direction.

Diversity and gender equality were hot topics at Behavioural Exchange 2016, the annual event for policy wonks and academic eggheads keen to apply the latest ideas from behavioural science. Governments and businesses across the world are working hard to address our hardwired biases and nudge us towards a world with greater gender equality.

Three of the key trends are described below:

1. We’re making good progress with recruitment, but more needs to be done once people are in work

Removing names from CVs and encouraging people to compare candidates with each other (rather than the ‘ideal’, often male, stereotype), can help to debias our decisions. Likewise, in the creative sector, encouraging performers to audition behind a curtain encourages us to judge by talent rather than looks. But once people are in work, the same unconscious bias can take hold restricting the progress of minority groups. One simple measure which has been proven to help redress the balance is to have pictures or portraits of successful female role models on the walls.

2. Full transparency and disclosure can sometimes backfire and be counter-productive

Well-intentioned initiatives to be fully transparent on pay have been met with a mixed reaction. The University of California publishes everyone’s pay on its website, but this has led to resentment by individuals in a wide range of groups who earn below the median or less than their colleagues. Similarly, the tendency to ask candidates to declare their salary at previous jobs during interview can perpetuate pay inequalities, given that women are often paid less than their male equivalents. Instead, organisations may be better placed to agree a set pay or pay range for specific jobs.

3. Full gender equality is likely to take a long time but seeing is believing

Diversity bias will take a long time to overcome and full gender equality is decades away. But significant progress has been made over the past few years. For example, the number of women on the Boards of the UK’s biggest companies has more than doubled since 2011 (according to the Davies Review, October 2015). In India, the introduction of quotas for female village heads more than two decades ago has helped to transform perceptions of what authority figures look like. Similarly, behavioural research shows the importance of championing ‘unusual’ role models – be that female engineers, female venture capitalists or male primary school teachers – so that people can see what’s possible and challenge stereotypes.

Enlightened academics and policy makers are using behavioural science to transform our understanding of how we behave and the measures we can introduce to address issues relating to diversity and gender equality. It’s clear from the work of the likes of Iris Bohnet and Linda Babcock that increased awareness of the issues is not enough to overcome our natural and hardwired bias.

Instead we need to embed measures that nudge, and occasionally shove, us in the right direction.

Simon Maule

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