Forget about unconscious bias or diversity training for managers, there’s no evidence they will lead to more women getting hired or promoted. Having more women on selection panels may in fact harm female candidates’ chances. And those leadership development training programs for high potential women? There’s no evidence that they’re effective either.
Programs like these are some of the most popular ways employers go about improving diversity: the US government has said it aims to train every one of its 2.8 million employees in how to avoid unconscious bias, for example.
But these new tips about their effectiveness are based on the most up-to-date evidence out there, and come from the heart of the UK government. They are an early output of a much broader project: a two year-long research collaboration between the Government Equalities Office (GEO), a team of Harvard academics and the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), the world’s first government “nudge unit”.
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Behavioural insights and gender
The Gender and Behavioural Insights (GABI) program is the first systematic attempt by any government to apply the cutting-edge, evidence-driven methods of behavioural science to the seemingly intractable challenge of gender equality at work.
Many of the workplace barriers women still face have strong behavioural drivers, said Tiina Likki, a Principal Advisor at the BIT, who leads the GABI program. These include stereotypes, biases and social norms around gender — for instance, that it’s women who should take time off to care for kids.
Mental shortcuts and behaviours like these are the bread and butter of behavioural insights, an approach which focuses on how real-life people will actually respond to policy changes, using scientific evidence and methods. This is often not included in the traditional policymaking toolkit, which assumes people are rational and driven by economic incentives.
While there is little hard policy evidence so far, the marriage of behavioural insights and gender equality has great promise. To give just one example, in 1970 just 5% of musicians in the US’s top five orchestras were female, today it’s more than 35%. That’s down to a simple behavioural fix to weed out recruiters’ bias: the use of a curtain in auditions to hide whether a man or woman was playing.
Experiments for equality
The BIT has created an online hiring platform, Applied, that replicates the curtain idea by using technology to remove demographic characteristics from job applications, alongside other behavioural tweaks to the hiring process.
But that’s just the start. GABI is now running behavioural science trials with five large UK employers — including Zurich, the insurer, Citi, the bank and Pearson, the learning company. The experiments test different ways to reduce gender inequality at different points in the talent management process: hiring, promotion and retention.
GABI has also gathered together the most up-to-date, scientific evidence available on what we already know does and doesn’t work to close the pay gap. This will soon be published by the government as a set of recommendations for employers about where to best spend their diversity budgets, Likki said. In the wake of a new transparency law that requires all large UK firms to publish their gender pay gap data online, there is more concern about performance on this measure than ever.
Some of the tips conflict with policies that have been pursued for many years. Despite its vast popularity, there’s no evidence that unconscious bias training actually changes behaviour or improves workplace equality. Diversity training, another common tactic, fares as poorly: research in the US has found that it either does not change the number of women in management positions, or actually reduces it.
Having women alongside men on selection panels sometimes improves women’s chances of being recruited, but sometimes it does the opposite. And there’s no high-quality evidence that leadership development training programs help women progress.
“Employers are starved for information about what is likely to work”
But it’s not all bad news. Evidence shows that skills-based assessment tasks (where candidates are given tests that replicate the work they’ll actually do on the job) and structured interviews (where all candidates are given the same questions in the same order) have a positive impact on diverse recruitment. Unstructured interviews are more likely to allow unfair bias to creep in.
Making promotion and pay processes more transparent can reduce pay inequality: when decisions are reviewed by others, managers realise they need to be objective and evidence-based. Evidence also shows women ask for less money than men. To encourage them to negotiate more, employers should make the possible salary range for roles clear. Studies indicate that women are put off negotiating when they’re not sure what a reasonable offer is.
“A lot of employers are genuinely really keen to reduce the gender pay gap, and also want to show they’re making a change. But they’re starved for information about what is likely to work,” said Likki.
This dearth of evidence is demonstrated by the actions employers have promised to take in the wake of the enforced pay gap revelations. The BIT did an audit of 30 of the action plans published on the government portal. “It’s quite a bleak picture,” said Likki. Of all the actions proposed, just 4% “are what we would categorise as effective,” she added.
Nudging couples in the home
Beyond tweaks to hiring and promotion systems, another area GABI will test its behavioural science on is how to get more fathers to take parental leave. The government introduced a new shared parental leave policy several years ago, allowing mothers to split maternity leave with their partners. But take-up rates have been very low, at just 2-8%.
Through interviews with parents, GABI researchers found that household decisions about childcare are often made implicitly, rather than through open conversation. “Parents just have these assumptions about what the other person wants or what the right thing to do is,” Likki said.
She added that one policy idea her team is considering is “to somehow foster these open conversations within households, and get couples to take a moment to stop and say, ‘What do we want?’”. One tentative idea is that doctors could hand pregnant women leaflets on how to bring up the issue of child care with their partner. Or couples could potentially be probed on the topic during antenatal classes.
Getting involved in internal household choices about who does the parenting is the kind of nudge that makes some people shudder about government paternalism. “But the idea would not be to force anyone to have conversation, just to provide support on how to have it if they want to,” Likki argued.
The science of gender policy
While employers want information, GABI has also been driven by a broader UK government desire to make policymaking more scientific. Likki said that the focus on experimentation, testing and impact evaluation “reflects a really strong commitment from the GEO to evidence-based policymaking”.
While the program lasts just two years, the hope is that the methods of behavioural insights will become ingrained in the UK’s gender policymaking for much longer.
The behavioural scientists working on GABI trials work several days a week inside the GEO offices. “The aim is to upskill or build capacity among the civil servants, so they can then apply this in their own work going forward,” said Likki.
In the long term, this new research agenda could reap huge rewards. More rigorous evidence on what actually works on a range of gender issues is clearly a good thing. And applying behavioural science to a problem so rooted in norms, biases and perceptions seems like a no-brainer.
“There are some problems that behavioural scientists alone can’t solve”
But behavioural insights alone cannot fully close the gender gap, and it will be most effective alongside more traditional economic levers. No matter how much you nudge, many employers and families will not be moved unless the financial incentives are also in place.
For example, the UK still has some of the highest childcare costs in Europe, and if it makes financial sense for a mother to stay at home rather than return to work, she probably will. “It’s not a silver bullet,” Likki said. “Of course there are some problems that behavioural scientists alone can’t solve.”
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