Book review: What Works: Gender Equality by Design by Iris Bohnet

March 24, 2016
Harvard University Press, £19.95

No one is immune from bias—but it’s amazing how many people think they are. Most people would deny judging women’s capabilities more harshly than men’s, but numerous “blind evaluations” have shown that almost everyone does. When the Boston Symphony Orchestra began asking musicians to audition behind a curtain, allowing judgements to be based on the quality of music alone, a female musician’s chance of being chosen rose by 50 per cent.

Resistance to such policies can be strong but, as Iris Bohnet, a director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School, points out, clarifying our judgement in this way allows us to make better decisions—more accurately picking the best candidates for a job, for example.

Evidence from psychological studies shows that even when people are informed about common biases they continue to fall foul of them. American companies spend about $8bn a year on diversity training, but Bohnet argues that much of that is wasted: if you are going to ask people to stop making decisions the way they do, you have to offer an alternative.

Bohnet is sometimes clearer on what doesn’t work than what does. Her suggestions are mostly modest—ideas to reduce the effect of bias in recruitment and evaluation processes, for example—with the exception of an interesting and ambitious chapter on shaping cultural norms. They are, however, thoroughly evidence-based and intensely practical. This book will provide employers with ways to think about what changes they can and should be making to address unintentional discrimination in the workplace, and how such changes would benefit everyone.