HUBweek Change Maker: Iris Bohnet

Professor of Public Policy; Director, Women and Public Policy Program; Co-Chair, Behavioral Insights Group, Harvard Kennedy School

Iris Bohnet is a behavioral economist at Harvard Kennedy School, combining insights from economics and psychology to improve decision-making in organizations and society, often with a gender or cross-cultural perspective. She recently authored What Works: Gender Equality by Design, which explores research-based solutions to overcome unconscious bias, a topic that she will discuss during HUBweek at What Works: Designing Inclusive Organizations.

As a behavioral economist, much of your work is rooted in the marriage of data-driven, concrete insights with more nuanced psychology. How do these disciplines complement each other in your work, and how do they inform your perspective on gender bias and multicultural communication? Psychological insights have helped economists improve their models of human behavior, moving from normative accounts to descriptions of how real people actually behave. These new models are now being tested in the laboratory and the field, and I have applied them to the question of gender equality. Psychology helps us understand why people tend to be biased against people who do not look the part, often unconsciously, and behavioral economics helps us move from diagnosis to treatment. In a path-breaking book, Nudge, an economist at Chicago University and a legal scholar at Harvard University, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, suggested in 2008, that we could use insights into how our minds work to help fix problems that until then, we had primarily addressed through command-and-control type of approaches. They showed, for example, that defaults may well be the most powerful instruments at our disposal helping people to save enough money for retirement. Such behavioral designs have since been applied to lots of different questions, including decisions about people’s health, wealth and happiness.

You recently published What Works: Gender Equality by Design. What drives your interest in this field and inspires your work? In many ways, it is quite natural for a behavioral economist to apply our toolbox to the question of gender. Gender inequality is a problem waiting to be fixed, and many of the approaches used to date, e.g., diversity training programs, have not had much success. Thus, I brought my disciplinary training as a behavioral economist together with my passion and my role as director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School.

I believe that gender equality is both the right and the smart thing to do and that, in fact, many people want to move the needle but do not quite know how. So, having done some research myself on what works to de-bias evaluation procedures in our hiring and promotion processes, I set out to collect as much evidence as possible on what works and what does not work to close gender gaps. Whenever possible, I relied on experimental evidence where, much like in a clinical trial, researchers had measured the impact of a given intervention by comparing a treatment group with a control group that had not been exposed to the intervention. Evidence inspires me — this is the only way we can learn, revise and improve. Organizations do not measure nearly enough how effective their practices and procedures really are but often just copy what sometimes is referred to as “best practices” from others. I argue that HR-departments should be run much more like finance or even marketing departments. In marketing, we routinely study, for example, whether how we label or describe a given product appeals to men or women. We do not tend to use the same kind of scrutiny for our job advertisements — even though research shows that it is easy to forgo half of the talent pool by using gendered language when describing a job.

The book, and your upcoming event at HUBweek, What Works: Designing Inclusive Organizations, focuses on how we can debias organizations, instead of people, to foster inclusion. In your opinion and from your research, why is this method more effective? Generally, research in behavioral science suggests that it is very hard to debias mindsets, independent of whether we focus on gender or racial biases, self-serving bias or another bias of our long list of dozens of biases. Awareness alone typically does not do the trick. Instead, I argue that a more promising approach is to make it easier for our biased minds to get things right. And by getting things right and, e.g., enable more men to thrive as nurses and women to thrive as engineers, we change the composition of the workforce and eventually, also the associations in our minds. Seeing is believing, and as long as we do not see more male nurses or more female engineers, we do not naturally associate those jobs with men or women, respectively.

Take the evidence from symphony orchestras. When they, including the Boston Symphony, introduced blind auditions, they dramatically increased the fraction of female and other traditionally under-represented musicians. A curtain is a behavioral design that makes it easier for orchestra directors to actually “hear” talent rather than just “see” whether someone looks the part. Curtains helped increase the fraction of female musicians on our major orchestras from below 10 percent in the 1970s to almost 40 percent today. These musicians are more diverse than ever and play excellent music. This is what inclusion is about. And by seeing more diverse musicians, our stereotypes about what a typical musician looks or should look like will change.

What does inclusivity mean to you? Creating an environment where everyone can thrive.

What, in your experience, are the most critical attributes of organizations that foster inclusivity? An increasing number of organizations are now improving hiring, promotion and performance appraisal procedures. They use data analytics to debias the language used in the job advertisements, blind themselves to the demographic characteristics of job applicants or stop sharing employee self-evaluations with their managers before the latter make up their own minds in performance appraisals. A number of start-ups such as BeApplied, Edge, Paradigm, pymetrics, or Unitive now make it easy for organizations to improve their procedures. Organizations that have already adopted some of these behavioral designs include the US and Massachusetts Governments’ introduction of transparency requirements re. pay, the Australian and UK governments’ introduction of blind evaluation procedures, GE and Credit Suisse doing away with the unhelpful practice of sharing self-evaluations with managers before they make up their own minds in performance appraisals, Vodafone and Unilever using structured interview protocols, and Google employing comparative evaluation procedures, among others. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported to have doubled the fraction of women in leadership in only a year by introducing blind evaluation procedures. But while I do believe talent management is a great place to start, organizations also have to tackle the micro-inequities that hold traditionally disadvantaged groups back.

One organization I worked with, for example, created a list of acceptable behaviors in teamwork and meetings and then introduced a little red flag that they raised whenever a transgression occurred. While I have not formally evaluated the impact of this practice, I like two things about it: they first made the invisible visible by putting in words what they collectively perceived as acceptable behavior (e.g., including not interrupting people or attributing comments to the people who actually made it, etc.) and second, came up with a low-cost, low-pain signal that does not criminalize transgressions but allows people to learn and adjust in the moment.

What is the most impactful professional advice you have received, and how has it influenced your career? My parents have raised me as a confident person, and a number of mentors have further instilled self-confidence in me. Some have been tough critics, some have held my hand, some have created opportunities for me to prove myself, some have helped when I could not solve a problem alone and some have opened doors for me. All of them together have influenced my career. I do not know what you would call this; maybe a support group. I think this was more important than what any one individual could have said or done. We all need people we can turn to, in good times and in particular, in bad ones.

What advice do you have for individuals just beginning their career who may be more likely to be impacted by bias? Find your support group. This could be your family, friends, colleagues, peers and superiors, inside and outside the organization you work in, and if you can, help change how we do things to make it easier for all of us to do the right thing. Maybe, you want to start by doing this for someone else, e.g., by negotiating on that person’s behalf, or by making sure someone in your team is heard. In a biased world, sometimes, advocating for someone else instead of yourself is easier and can make a real difference. Then, have someone do this for you. I am a lioness when advocating for my students but still am uncomfortable negotiating for myself.

What is one thing that each of us can do immediately to foster inclusivity in the workplace? Hang up portraits of traditionally under-represented groups. Seeing is believing, even on our walls!

Join us during HUBweek 2016 at What Works: Designing Inclusive Organizations on September 27 from 5:30–7:00PM to hear more from Iris and learn about creating more inclusive environments.

The HUBweek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world.