What Works: A book review by Bob Morris

Wgat WorksWhat Works: Gender Equality by Design
Iris Bohnet
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (2016)

How and why behavioral designers can help us to make much better decisions

As Iris Bohnet explains, this book is the result of a nearly ten-year journey that began when David Ellwood, then dean of Harvard Kennedy School, invited her to serve as faculty chair and later director of the Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP), one of the Kennedy School’s research centers.

“The book’s goal is to offer good designs it you; designs that make it easier for our biased minds to get things right. Based on research evidence, we can change the environments in which we live, learn, and work. My principal focus here is the stubborn, costly problem of gender inequality, but the recommendations I make stem from a wealth or research about decisions and behavior that go well beyond gender. The book takes as a given that people make mistakes; they make them often and (sometimes) unknowingly, As a consequence, these mistakes reduce everyone’s well-being.” She goes on to suggest that the solutions she recommends come from the field of behavioral economics, “building on insights on how our mind works.”

She invites her reader to become a behavioral designer and I hope each reader accepts this invitation because those who read this brilliant book — not Iris Bohnet — will need to achieve the behavioral changes in their respective environments. Think of this book as both a call to action and an operations manual. It provides just about all the information, instruction, insights, and counsel that anyone needs to help create and sustain healthier environments. It must be a collaborative environment.

It is important to keep in mind that behavioral design “goes beyond law, regulation, or incentives, although it acknowledges that these are and will remain important. But they do not always work…We do not always do what is best for ourselves, for our organizations, or for the world — and sometimes a little nudge helps.” For example, as Bohnet notes, orchestras that conduct blind auditions (i.e. candidates perform behind a screen) can be transformed by doubling the talent pool. “Careful timing of breaks allows judges to make decisions more accurately and fairly. To the business case, then, we must add the moral case: behavioral design is the right thing to do.”

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Bohnet’s coverage:

o Team performance (Pages 16-17, 228-235, and 241-243)
o Negotiations (31-32, 46-47, and 62-81)
o Daniel Kahneman (34-35)
o Wages (63-68 and 73-74)
o Leadership development programs (83-85 and 98-99)
o Sponsoring (86-89 and 211-212)
o People analytics (103-104 and 118-119)
o Gender wage gap (110-115, 155-156, and 189-190)
o Comparative evaluation (126-127 and 267-268)
o Australia (157-1458, 162-163, and 217-218)
o Risk aversion (167-175, 186-187, and 192-193)
o Quotas for corporate boards (208-209, 238-239, and 240-241)
0 Fairness (234-235 and 241-242)
o Affirmative action (237-238 and 252-253)
o Social norms (244-265)
o Transparency (273-283)

After offering 36 research-driven design suggestions in this book, Bohnet suggests some key design principles, focusing on “the four areas that we have covered in this book: training, talent management, school and work, and diversity. These become useful shorthand aspirations as you introduce any single or several designs.” For example:

1. Training: Move from “training” to “capacity building.”
2. Talent Management: Move from “intuition” to “data” and “structure.”
3. School and Work: Move from an “uneven” to an “even” playing field.
4. Diversity: Move from a “numbers game” to the “conditions for success.”

These transitions can be completed only if and when those involved recognize when and why learning the sex of someone immediately activates gender biases that can (and usually do) lead to unintentional and implicit discrimination. This book cannot totally eliminate those biases but it can make people much more aware of them and their potential influence.

I congratulate Bohnet on a brilliant achievement and share her deep conviction that, through behavioral design, “we can move the needle toward creating equal opportunities for female musicians, for male teachers, and for everyone else. Good design often harvests low-hanging fruit, left on the tree not so much because if bad intentions but rather because of the mind bugs that affect our judgment. Behavioral design offers an additional instrument for our collective toolbox to promote change; it complements other approaches focusing, for example, on equal rights, education, health, agency, or on policies making work and family compatible.” Also healthier for everyone involved.

Some who read my brief commentary may say, “All that is fine and dandy but what can I do or only a few of us do?” I presume to remind them of Margaret Mead’s observation, one with which both Iris Bohnet and I totally agree: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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