Fixing workplace bias

March 15, 20162 minute read

An article in Wall Street Journal proposes “real fixes” to ensure that women “get a fair shot at work.” The author, Iris Bohnet, professor public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, suggests companies stop focusing on “trying to change the biases of individuals and instead turn our efforts to fixing the design of institutions themselves.”

She suggests steps such as adopting “blind” recruitment methods and using data to learn about possible disparate treatment of employees, “identifying gender gaps in outcome variables such as pay, recruitment and promotion and input variables such as training, mentoring and company policies and practices.”

Dr. Bohnet uses the example of a small design innovation in the way musicians are selected for symphony orchestras. “A curtain to shield musicians from the evaluation committee allowed them to focus on the music played instead of what the musician looked like – resulted in 50% greater likelihood that women would advance to future tryouts. Today almost 40% of musicians are female versus 5% to 10% in the 1970s when 5% to 10% were female.”

She concludes, “Smart design allows a way out of this thicket of biases. In recruitment: Be vigilant about the language you use. If you want to benefit from the whole available talent pool, use gender neutral wording. When hiring, learn from the blind auditions of symphony orcestras and stop asking for demographic information. Take advantage of new tools that easily allow firms to anonymize applicant information. And level the playing field in performance management. Rely on data to understand what is broken, and measure whether there are biases in how employees are supported in performing their jobs and evaluated for results.”

Dr. Bohnet is the author of “What Works: Gender Equality by Design.”