Gender Equality at work

BITCI News - Sep 29, 2016

We’ve been talking about this for decades and yet progress is slow. Why?

We hardly need another report on the business case for diversity. Added to this, developing and retaining employees are perennial priorities, employee engagement is high on the agenda and businesses are spending time and money on building their employer brand.

The recent PwC 2016 Irish CEO Pulse Survey found that ‘the availability of key skills is the number one business concern for Irish CEOs’. You would think that would be enough to drive measurable change on the participation of women at all levels in business.

Disappointingly, this does not seem to be the case.  Yes, everyone aims to comply with the law, but beyond that the rhetoric is often poor and the outcomes are hard to quantify.  ‘Diversity is what it is’, seems to be the attitude and even some of the most progressive businesses are reluctant to manage and measure it.

Perhaps we are jaded by constantly trying and failing.    A recent publication offers some hope.

“What Works: Gender Equality by Design” by Iris Bohnet, Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School, looks at the challenges underlying gender equality in the workplace, what hasn’t worked and what could work,  all based on evidence, case studies and behavioural experimentation.

Here is a summary of Bohnet’s findings under the headings we use in the Business Working Responsibly Mark.


It is important to have a policy or written commitment on diversity with relevant targets and objectives.   “When persons or organisations are asked to make a plan for when, where and how they will reach a certain goal, the plan can serve as a commitment device: a psychological contract that they write with themselves”.  There is a greater chance of making progress on gender diversity if it is considered a business goal and managed and communicated accordingly.


Bohnet questions the usefulness of diversity awareness training, examines the pros and cons of quotas and queries leadership training and mentoring.  These have their uses; she examines the evidence and makes practical recommendations.

What has been shown to work is being aware of where bias can influence decisions – in recruitment, in performance appraisals, in rewards, in succession planning etc., and then designing processes to eliminate that bias.   She offers suggestions for redesigning interview and appraisal processes, talent management and team meetings.

A great starting point is an understanding that we are all subject to bias, irrespective of our expertise or background.   Try this IAT test:

Other recommendations from Bohnet are:

  • Unconscious bias training
  • sponsorship (an extension of mentoring)
  • changes to the decision-making environments (with specific tools) rather than expecting to de-bias mind-sets
  • increased transparency around rewards


In the Business Working Responsibly Mark we ask how a measures its performance against stated targets.  In regard to gender diversity, Bohnet says that ‘any organisation that hopes to improve needs to base its decision on evidence. This is particularly true when confronting problems that are the result of systematic unconscious bias.  A focused data-driven effort to solve gender inequality can help organisations invest resources in those policies, practices and structures that yield the highest returns. People think they know what they are doing, based on a mixture of intuition, best practice, tradition and industry norms, but only evidence can tell’.

A report focusing in greater detail on recommendations from ‘What Works: Gender Equality by Design’ will be included in the Members-only section of our website in September.


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