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July 10, 2017

Five New Ideas to Tackle Gender Inequity

Hannah Hayes

Google any profession and add “where are the women?” and there’s a good chance you’ll come up with an article of that name. In the legal profession, women have been asking this question since the forming of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession (CWP) in 1987. CWP’s first report showed that women were not advancing at a rate commensurate with their growing numbers. Despite some progress and numerous studies, strategies, and trainings, progress has been painfully slow.

A quick survey of other professions confirms that the struggle for gender equity in the workplace is being waged in just about every field. Nationally, women earn only 79 percent of men’s hourly wage, and despite making up half of the workforce, it’s a long, slow climb to the C-suite. A report commissioned by in 2016, “Women in the Workplace 2016,” shows women enter the corporate world at near equal levels as men (45 percent), but only 17 percent make it to the CEO level; for women of color, that number is 3 percent.

In the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, women are notably absent not just in management, but in the pipeline as well. In 1984, 37 percent of computer science graduates were women, but by 2016 this number had dropped to 18 percent. The percentage of women architects upon graduation is close to 50 percent, yet only 18 percent of licensed architects are women. Up until a few years ago, only 3 percent of creative directors in advertising were women. Women make up 36 percent of entrepreneurs, but less than 15 percent of companies receiving venture capital money had a woman on the team.

Nearly 40 percent of women who earn engineering degrees quit the profession or never enter the field, and many of those who left cited poor workplace climate and mistreatment by managers and coworkers, says Nadya Fouad, a University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee educational psychologist who is conducting a three-part study of women in engineering.

Numerous studies point to climate as the primary reason women leave a profession, with the likelihood of reaching upper management so slim. “In a lot of tech environments, we see cultures that are hostile to people of color and women, and while it differs across companies, the default smart person [we imagine] in tech is a young white male,” says Y-vonne Hutchinson, a former international labor rights lawyer who founded a consultancy firm in Oakland, California, that helps tech companies reach their diversity goals. Older workers also are excluded in fast-growing fields where company culture often involves bonding over ping-pong and beer.

Because of these bleak statistics, companies are feeling pressured to improve their diversity profiles, especially in fields where the products made are consumed by women. Studies show that metrics for hiring and promotion still make the biggest difference for maintaining a diverse workforce and bringing women and minorities into the C-suite. Implicit bias training, if done correctly and if combined with structural and policy changes, is also important. However, here are five new ideas emerging from these renewed efforts.

1. Blind interviews or test your “intuition.”

In 1970, only 5 percent of musicians in the top five orchestras in the United States were women. Today, this number is 35 percent thanks to a blind audition policy that had applicants perform behind a curtain to eliminate the visual gender cue, and walk on and off stage barefoot to eliminate the auditory gender cue—the telltale click of high heels. “A simple curtain doubled the talent pool, creating amazing music and transforming what orchestras look like,” Iris Bohnet points out in her groundbreaking book What Works: Gender Equality by Design (see sidebar at end of article). A behavioral scientist and director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Bohnet has worked with founder and executive director Victoria Budson to create interventions that result in concrete improvements in closing the gender gap.

Both Bohnet and Budson advocate a similar approach for hiring and retention. “Rather than asking each person to behave in a way that isn’t biased, we should do the organizational design work to de-bias processing,” says Budson, who recommends removing names and gendered references from resumes. Web-based tools and software can do not only just that, but screen hiring ads to spot language that skews toward one gender as well.

In an environment where “blind” is not possible, such as promoting within the firm, challenge unconscious bias by color coding the candidates by gender. While hiring often begins with categorizing associates intuitively as “ready” or “not ready,” use metrics to test that intuition. It may turn out the “not readies” actually do measure up, where the “ready” candidates have a thinner portfolio. The color coding acts as a cue, allowing trends to emerge, and it might raise a red flag. “The issue is not likely to be natural performance or innate talent, so you need to ask what is it that’s happening organizationally,” Budson says. It may indicate implicit bias or that women are not given training or sponsorship.

2. The “nudge” theory: move hiring committees toward diversity.

Behavioral scientists have shown that positive reinforcement, incentives, and targeted suggestions can influence behavior in decision making. This also can be successful in addressing unconscious bias in the interview process, according to WAPPP researcher Paolo Cecchi-​Dimeglio, faculty chair of the Executive Leadership Research Initiative for Women and Minority Attorneys at the Center on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cecchi-​Dimeglio recommends e-mailing all those involved in the hiring process to remind them of the importance of hiring women and minorities. Inquire about the criteria measures and the interview design, making sure that all candidates are given the same questions and scored on specific details agreed upon in advance.

Budson agrees. “Instead of saying ‘we’re looking for the right fit,’ break down the key attributes and ask how each candidate rates along those attributes.” Sending these “nudge” reminders can help ensure a fairer process.

3. Attack the “double bind” with an alternative script.

The “double bind” occurs when women remain stuck in a lower position or a lower wage because if they speak up, they are often pegged as difficult to work with or aggressive. Budson suggests “an alternative script.” When asking for an increase, whether in the hiring process or as part of a promotion, state the qualities that are valued as part of your pitch. Do the research in advance to support the amount you’re asking for.

In Boston, the city government’s Office of Women’s Advancement partnered with 200 businesses to train women to assertively ask for promotions and demand their worth when interviewing for a job. In addition to researching their market value, timing and language are discussed, and women practice with role play.

4. Get involved in local government.

Many cities like Boston have commissions or departments for women’s issues. The above-mentioned program in Boston will train 80,000 women over five years, and the next initiative will address child-care issues.

Some entities may have funding at the local level. For example, the federal government offers apprenticeships and other incentives for women and minorities who are vastly unrepresented in highway, street, and bridge construction. So far, only seven states have taken advantage of these federal funds to improve diversity in this growing job sector.

“People think of local government in terms of legislation, but often if you get a group together, you can find some way to get local government to support it,” says Megan Costello, director of Boston’s Office of Women’s Advancement.

5. Change the culture for the next generation.

As studies show, the culture of the workplace matters, and this may involve changing mindsets. Despina Stratigakos, professor of architecture at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, and author of Where Are the Women Architects?, convinced Mattel to create an architect Barbie. The doll was born from an exhibit Stratigakos directed at the University of Michigan in 2006 shortly after passage of Proposal 2, which banned affirmative action on college campuses.

“Things were tense, so I asked faculty and students to design architect Barbie, as humor is often a very feminist tool,” Stratigakos recalls. “It got people talking, and students challenged various ideas of what an architect can be.” The doll also would deliver the message that women architects are normal to little girls. “What happens in the sandbox counts.”

Mara Lecocq, a freelance advertising creative director, realized while shopping for a child’s gift that no books reflected girls in “nontraditional” STEM fields, so she created one. The Secret Code is a customizable book involving a girl who invents a robot. By ordering the book online, the name and race of the main character can be specified.

As the creative director for the New York–based agency AKQA, Lecocq created an ad for Verizon that called attention to the lack of women entering STEM fields. “The premise was that it’s not the big life lessons; it’s the everyday little things that steer girls away from science, and that was the genesis of the Secret Code.”

But change doesn’t need to be that complicated. Look around the office and see if women are among the portraits of past presidents and CEOs. If not, put up women champions.

Moving Forward

With jobs in technology and other STEM fields projected to grow, concerns over gender equity also have increased. Just as diversity in the legal field is often client-driven, consumers are starting to push the change in both technology and advertising. The American Institute of Architects, Washington, D.C., is devising an equitable practice guide, and organizations like continue to track what works in the corporate world. A highly publicized sexual harassment case in Silicon Valley resulted in Project Include, which seeks diversity solutions in the tech industry. In 2011, women in advertising founded the 3% Conference after discovering that women represented only 3 percent of creative directors in top advertising firms. In just three years, this number jumped to 11.5 percent.

The good news is that after many years, we do know what works: Diversity as a value must be modeled from the top on down, and transparency and metrics are key.


In What Works: Gender Equality by Design, Iris Bohnet draws on studies and data collected from around the world to find evidence-based interventions to address gender bias in the workplace. A behavioral scientist and director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program, Bohnet outlines dozens of strategies to help women to level the playing field in all areas in the workplace. The text includes concrete suggestions in the following areas:

  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.”

For more information, visit the WAPPP website at

Hannah Hayes

Hannah Hayes is a Chicago-area freelance writer.