Yet, science and statistics reveal these excuses as the strawmen they are, because talking about bias increases bias. Some of the most biased persons are also not only aware of their biases but feel that their biases are completely justified and unapologetically express them. Remember the English biochemist and Nobel laureate, Tim Hunt? He brazenly announced that women are not only too emotional for science, but they are also disruptive to men’s scientific accomplishments. This was only 6 short years ago.
So, how can we make real progress towards gender equality in organisations?
Based on recent advances in diversity science and behavioural economics, the evidence suggests we might be able to make real progress by design.
Managers and organisations can implement design-inspired interventions for various decisions and applications, although the early career phase is perhaps the most critical, given that this is when we lose most of our trained female talent in paid employment. Several steps can be taken:
During recruitment, implementing longer shortlists increases consideration of female candidates, particularly in male-dominated fields (e.g., technology).
Blind applications or auditions within recruitment may hold promise in reducing sex-based selection decisions, as shown in a study of orchestra auditions.(1)
More gender-balanced teams eliminate male-advantages shown in leadership evaluations of male-dominated teams. With more equal gender composition in teams, men and women leaders are viewed as more similarly representative of their teams, and are thus rated as similarly leader-like and trustworthy.
Requiring more women to serve in selection committees does not increase the quantity or quality of female candidates qualifying for positions; this hinges on the false assumption that women may be more favourable towards female candidates, and it may also make male evaluators less favourable towards female candidates.
Brief, online, stand-alone diversity training is largely ineffective for creating long-term behaviour change in employees (other than those who are already highly supportive of women).
Last, but certainly not least, training women to be more confident, agentic, and “leader-like” (i.e., “fix-the-women approaches”) often backfire because these women are viewed as aggressive and may even trigger moral outrage. This is on top of the time these leaders lost in training while their male peers continued ‘business as usual.’ Indeed, individual interventions—e.g., telling women they simply need to ‘lean in’—are generally ineffective strategies to solve persistent, pervasive, and systemic societal problems such as gender bias and inequality.
(1) However, this may be potentially time-consuming or even impossible in some cases (e.g., letters of recommendations), and this strategy may backfire if evaluators were already implicitly favouring female applicants.