Can We Design Our Way Out of Gender Inequality?

Is it possible to design environments that steer people toward acting in more equitable ways? Behavioral economists offer a compelling, if not entirely convincing, case.

What Works: Gender Equality by Design

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Length: 400 pages
Author: Iris Bohnet
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-03

Can we design our way out of gender inequality?

Iris Bohnet is a behavioral economist who thinks we can. Behavioral designers, she explains, “create environments to help us better achieve our goals.” A sort of amalgam of psychology, sociology, and statistical analysis, behavioral design aims to understand why we behave the way that we do -- how our brains respond to situations, and why -- and then uses that knowledge to figure out how to design environments (workplaces, schools, communities) that are more likely to achieve desired goals. Some have referred to this as social psychology. Put more bluntly, ‘behavioral engineering’ might be the proper term.

Bohnet’s new book What Works: Gender Equality By Design seeks to apply this knowledge toward the goal of achieving greater gender equality. Bohnet, a professor of public policy at Harvard University with an impressive array of credentials and accomplishments in the field of behavioral economics and public policy to her name, provides what is basically a state-of-the-art summary of the current knowledge, findings and theories behavioral design research has produced that have implications for gender equality.

Does diversity training actually result in greater workforce and management diversity? Does the wording of job ads affect whether women or men apply for them? Do men and women act differently in negotiating salary packages, and does this have an impact on workforce retention? Under what circumstances does familiarity with a company’s equality policies actually affect whether managers apply those principles in everyday management decisions?

These (and many more) are the sorts of questions Bohnet examines. She doesn’t dwell on the philosophical principles, but instead focuses on what the data shows. This is very much an empirical review of the research, but one that considers how that empirical data can be applied in workplace and management situations to improve gender equality.

Bohnet’s work is a superb summary of the state-of-the-research when it comes to behavioral design research and gender equality. It's refreshing to learn how well (or poorly) many of our taken-for-granted assumptions actually perform when they're scientifically assessed. But it raises broader questions about how and when we choose to use this type of research to achieve goals. Bohnet urges a broad and immediate application of the research. But there’s something about behavioral design that leaves the researcher -- or equality activist -- with hesitations.

Behavioral design conveys the impression of an end-justifies-the-means science. What matters seems not so much changing social norms but using a greater understanding of existing norms to develop workarounds that steer people toward a desired outcome (greater gender equality, whether they like it or not). There’s often a focus on unintended consequences; take for example disclosure and transparency mechanisms. Requiring restaurants to post inspection reports or list the calorie content of their food doesn’t really affect consumer decisions, it turns out, but it does lead the restaurants to self-impose better hygiene practices and to sell healthier food. Requiring companies to report on the energy-efficiency of their products has the consequence of spurring companies to produce more energy-efficient products.

Research on accountability mechanisms, meanwhile, shows how deeply people care about what others think of them: so while equity policies and diversity training don’t necessarily appear to produce shifts in who gets hired (despite their new knowledge, managers often default back to hiring people similar to themselves), requiring managers to account for themselves and explain their decisions (and letting them know in advance that they’ll be called upon to do so) does. These are examples of the sort of data and techniques the book explores.

Design Limitations

Behavioral economics has become increasingly popular among policymakers, but this has also led to growing scrutiny, and skepticism, about its potential. Financial Times writer Tim Harford offered a balanced consideration of the discipline’s pros and cons in a thoughtful and thorough 2014 analysis. He points out that its theories sometimes fail to produce the results one would expect, citing as an example an effort to increase organ donor registration in which the messaging proposed by a behavioral design theory didn’t work as well as rival approaches. “[H]ad the rival approaches not been tested with an experiment, it would have been easy for well-meaning civil servants acting on authoritative advice to have done serious harm,” he notes. More broadly, continues Harford, “there is something unnerving about a discipline in which our discoveries about the past do not easily generalise to the future.”

Another critique Harford flags is the sometimes unwieldy arsenal of theories behavioral economists have produced. As noted above, the theories don’t always produce the desired outcomes. While subsequent research invariably produces a new theory or sub-theory to explain the variation, he asks “how many special cases can behavioural economics sustain before it becomes arbitrary and unwieldy?” He quotes economist David K Levine from Washington University, author of the 2012 Is Behavioral Economics Doomed?: “There is a tendency to propose some new theory to explain each new fact. The world doesn’t need a thousand different theories to explain a thousand different facts.”

This is indeed the case in What Works, which features a barrage of different theories and concepts: ‘survivor bias’, ‘child salary penalty’, ‘child salary premium’, ‘halo effect’, ‘hindsight bias’, ‘moral licensing’, ‘recency bias’, ‘peak-end rule’, and so on and so forth. Perhaps the biggest critique of behavioral design, Harford notes, is the use of statistics and science as a way of dodging difficult political decisions. He offers the example of behavioral designers’ intensive research into methods for swaying consumers to reduce their energy consumption. Different wording for ads and different ways of presenting electrical bills were studied, all in the hopes of subconsciously goading or manipulating energy customers into reducing their consumption. Yet all of these efforts ignored the much more direct and effective, if politically risky, solution -- raising energy prices through taxes.

So behavioral design may not in fact prove the be-all-end-all method some make it out to be. To her credit, Bohnet also acknowledges the limitations of the discipline. Behavioral designers, she notes, “do not define goals, but they help us get there… 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.”

Taken in this spirit, What Works is a fascinating and absorbing book, presenting dozens of research projects, case studies, and theories that address a wide range of gender equality problems: how to get companies to hire more women; how to reduce subconscious gender bias in employee evaluations; how to boost boys’ and girls’ performance in schools, and much more. It offers thought-provoking (and empirically-researched) challenges to many of the mainstream notions and ideas that turn out to be rooted in bias, stereotypes, and other “mind bugs that affect our judgment”. Medical school interviews? Waste of time. Team interviews for job hires? Awful idea. Asking employees to evaluate their own performance? Begging for trouble.

While the book addresses gender inequality across a broad spectrum, there’s a clear bias for the world of business, and for notions applicable to large workplaces. This is consistent with behavioral design’s grounding in the discipline of economics: Bohnet adopts the position that there is a strong business case to be made for gender equality, and that firms should adopt behavioral design techniques because inequality is costing them and the global economy an immense amount of money and productivity loss, whether measured in profit or in human and material resources.

Not everyone finds the business case the most compelling argument for gender equality, of course. There’s something a bit unsettling about relying on behavioral design to provide easy answers to tough social and political questions. After all, if courageous equality activists in recent decades hadn’t thrown out the prevailing rulebook and upturned all the existing social norms of the past several generations, we wouldn’t even be in a situation today where we would be posing the sort of questions that equality-minded behavioral designers are now trying to answer. There’s something unnerving about relying on behavioral design theories that could be applied just as easily to undermine gender equality as to improve it, if the political tide were to shift.

Criticisms aside, Bohnet has produced an exceptionally clear and succinct collection of research that offers important insights into the complexity of gender inequality. She offers a variety of immediate tools that can be applied to a range of contexts and situations. One can see the book attracting use as a corporate training manual, an academic textbook, or simply a general reference tool. While the possibilities of behavioral design should be kept in perspective and taken with a grain of salt, What Works is nevertheless an important contribution to the literature, and to the broader social and political imperative of fighting for a gender-equal world.


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