IWD 2018: Addressing gender bias with BI

8 March 2018Kim Louw

Categorybehavioural insights


Today is International Women’s Day and this year’s theme is ‘Press for Progress’. It is an important day to mark the progress towards gender equality around the world. And in NSW we have made progress.

addressing gender bias

Since 2014 the proportion of women in senior roles in the public service has increased 3 percentage points, from 33.4% to 37.4%. However, we still have a long way to go to meet the Premier’s Priority for gender parity in senior roles in the public service by 2025.

Although structural and systemic barriers have contributed to the lower representation of women in senior roles globally, research has shown that there are strong behavioural and cognitive influences as well. Gender stereotypes, social norms and implicit (or unconscious) bias can influence who applies, is selected, promoted and retained in senior roles. For instance, as women are perceived to be more competent and ambitious they are also more likely to be disliked and critiqued for their mistakes than their male peers.

Behavioural insights provides some helpful ways to #pressforprogress

Behavioural science research has pointed to several evidence-based ways to reduce bias and press for progress towards gender equality. In August 2016, we published a short report outlining some of the ways our decision-making can influence workplace diversity (PDF, 119 KB). Below we summarise three key ways to increase gender equality.

Take ‘us’ out of the decisions

We all have unconscious cognitive biases that affect our decisions. In recruitment, our unconscious cognitive biases, such as our tendency to over-rely on one positive aspect (halo effect) or prefer a candidate who is more like us (affinity bias), can lead all of us, both men and women, to less merit-based choices. Finding innovative ways to remove our inherent biases from decision-making can be very effective at increasing gender equality.

For example, in an attempt to overcome gender-biased hiring, a number of symphony orchestras have introduced de-identified recruitment strategies. The most famous, is simply introducing a screen between the judges and the candidate to conceal candidates’ gender and other defining characteristics. This simple action increased the likelihood that a female musician would advance to the next recruitment round by 11 percentage points. During the final round, de-identified auditions increased the likelihood that female musicians were selected by 30%! The further unintended benefit was that highly qualified female musicians were more likely to audition for orchestras that used the de-identified recruitment strategies. By removing bias from their selection procedures, the orchestras also attracted better, more diverse talent.

It is not always easy to identify how our own biases might affect our decision-making and it can be difficult to overcome these biases via training. By removing the opportunity for own biases to affect decision-making we can improve our decisions and reduce gender-based discrimination as well as other discrimination based on race, ethnicity, age and sexuality.

Seeing is believing

Research has demonstrated that greater exposure to female leaders can disrupt negative stereotypes of women in leadership positions. But perhaps more surprisingly, even very subtle exposure to successful female or male leaders can influence the behaviour of aspiring leaders. In one study, male and female participants were exposed to a virtual classroom that either featured a picture of Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel or no picture. When women and men were exposed to the Bill Clinton picture or no picture the women spoke significantly less than the men in a complex leadership task. However, when women and men saw the Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel picture the gender difference disappeared – men and women spoke for the same length of time and were rated as equally good. In addition to speaking for longer, women who saw a female leader were independently rated as stronger performers than women who saw the male leader or no picture. Women’s self-evaluations also improved when they saw a female leader.  Very subtle counter-stereotype changes in the design of classrooms have also been shown to increase the proportion of women enrolling in computer sciencecourses. The Harvard Kennedy School found this research compelling and are increasing the representation of female leaders depicted in portraits around the university.

Increasing our exposure to counter-stereotypical images can help to disrupt ingrained stereotypes.

Don’t forget the informal barriers once formal barriers have been removed

Last year, we published an article outlining a trial that nudged employees to take up flexible start and finish times. From our qualitative research interviewing employees and managers, we found that the barriers to taking up flexible work were more informal (e.g. the social norms, manager’s perceptions) than formal (e.g. infrastructure, IT). In essence, rather than the lack of access to a laptop to take home, it was subtle cues, such as a joke from a colleague as you left at 4pm, that rewarded and sustained the 9-5 culture. In the trial we were able to demonstrate that behavioural insights could successfully tackle the subtle informal behavioural barriers embedded in organisational culture. Relatively simple solutions, such as changing default settings in calendars, implementing manager training and encouragement, and developing a team-based competition significantly shifted the time employees were starting and ending their office workdays. A more flexible workplace can help to create a more inclusive culture for people with caring responsibilities and contributes to gender equality.

When considering barriers to gender equality, it’s important to consider informal barriers. Research has shown that we don’t like to change, we prefer the status quo (known as the status quo bias). So even when structural, formal barriers have been removed our biases may keep us from embracing change. Behavioural insights can help to identify and reduce both formal and informal barriers and encourage individuals and organisations to embrace the changes needed to achieve gender equality.

These evidence-based strategies have been shown to be effective at creating more diverse and inclusive workplaces, where both men and women are provided with opportunities to achieve their personal and professional goals.

Behavioural insights has been shown to be a valuable tool to ‘press for progress’ towards gender equality. We will continue to look for opportunities to apply behavioural insights to address complex policy challenges so that the NSW Government can work more effectively towards enhancing the lives of the people of NSW.