Awareness is Not Enough
Bohnet Discusses Gender Bias in the Workplace
Raising awareness is only the first step to addressing gender bias in the workplace, said Dr. Iris Bohnet during a recent Women’s Scientists Advisors 30th Anniversary Seminar Series lecture.
“We have to apply real treatment to get real impacts,” said Bohnet, Albert Pratt professor of business and government and co-director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Implicit or unconscious bias shapes how people interpret the world, she continued. While these biases can help speed along decision-making during a busy day, they contribute to race, gender and socioeconomic inequality.
Bohnet noted many real-world examples of how gender biases create an uneven playing field. Recently, her colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania surveyed recruiters who attended a STEM job fair on campus about what they look for in candidates. The recruiters reported grade point average (GPA), internship experience and diversity were the most important qualities. Her colleagues then matched recruiters with candidates based on their preferences.
When it came time to hire, the employers did not hire students based on their own self-reported criteria. Researchers found that White male candidates with 3.75 GPAs were treated the same as women and minority candidates with 4.0 GPAs. Male applicants also got more credit for internships.
“That’s how these unconscious biases turn into real actions,” Bohnet noted.
Introducing hiring screens is one way to reduce gender bias in hiring. For example, the Boston Symphony Orchestra began “blind auditions,” where musicians perform behind a curtain. This mechanism increased the percentage of women who are part of the orchestra. Other organizations, such as the United Kingdom’s government, blind themselves to the names and addresses of job candidates.
In 2018, the Nobel Foundation asked Bohnet to review its nomination process. The foundation was aware that more than 90% of Nobel laureates were men from the Western hemisphere. The organization wanted to increase the number of women laureates. At the time, prize committees asked qualified individuals to nominate only one expert.
“I suggested to the foundation to explicitly invite people like me to nominate more than one person,” she said. “Our research strongly suggests that if we make decisions in bundles or batches, both accuracy and diversity increase.”
This approach ensures that decision-makers give more thought to who, for example, gets nominated for an award or considered for a position. It also expands the pool of candidates who get judged in the first place.
There is enough evidence to inform how to reduce bias in the hiring process, she said. Research suggests the best predictor of future performance is neither interview nor resume, but rather previous work sample tests that mirror the position’s responsibilities.
She warned about groupthink during panel interviews. Members of the panel will not come up with independent assessments. One person’s opinion can influence other panelists. Instead, Bohnet recommended one-on-one interviews.
“We have more gender diversity at the entry level, but much less at the top,” she said.
Bias in the performance review process influences who gets promotions, training opportunities and salary increases. Many organizations require employees to rate their own performance. Bohnet’s research has found that women, on average, give themselves lower performance reviews than men. In particular, women of color gave themselves the lowest self-evaluations. These ratings reduced women’s performance scores even though managers reduced female employees’ self-assessments less than those of their male counterparts, on average.
Bohnet has also discovered that women and minorities are given less support to begin with. This is called performance-support bias. These employees are often passed up for promotion because they have “thin files.”
Bohnet worked with a law firm that had this problem. She noticed that firm partners pursued first-year associates who were the same gender and race. Over time, the favored associates were included in important deals and received more feedback. The firm has since changed how it allocates work to first-year associates.
Many women do “office housework”—the non-promotable tasks that keep an organization running. An example is reserving conference room space. While these important chores can be completed quickly, “the problem is that these little tasks accumulate,” Bohnet said. “When time comes up for promotion, we don’t acknowledge that people have supported our institution this way.” At the Kennedy School, tasks are explicitly taken into account in faculty’s workloads.
In addition to being aware of—and having the tools to address—bias, organizations must also be attuned to motivation. Deep exposure to people who are different from ourselves can motivate us to care about others. For example, men who mentor women better understand the issues women face and begin to consider them.
She urged others to become a “norm entrepreneur,” meaning someone who is interested in shaping the norms an organization holds. People want to be a part of the group.
Twenty years ago, the Kennedy School’s walls featured 50 portraits of leaders—all men. The school unintentionally signaled to its female population “they were not made to be leaders.” That has since changed. Now, there are many portraits of women from countries all over the world.
Finally, Bohnet noted that “too often we focus on the absence of women or people of color.” While it is true there aren’t enough women in positions of leadership, it’s important to communicate that “the train has left the station,” she concluded. “Gender diversity is happening. If you are not part of that club, you are on the outside.”
The full lecture can be viewed at https://bit.ly/40TPjSq.