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Whirling Chief
Nº 142

An Open Letter to HR: Let’s Lead the Change Journey in Gender Equality in the Workplace!

For those of us in Human Resources who have taken on the task of trying to increase the diversity in our talent pipelines to enable women to rise to and succeed in senior leadership roles, the results we were hoping to achieve have been mostly elusive.

In 2017, just 5.2% of CEOs of S&P 500 companies are women – up from 4.8% in 2014.[1] According to Forbes, in 2016 the global proportion of senior business roles held by women stood at 24%. This shows a slight increase from 22% in 2015, but has coincided with an increase in the percentage of firms with no women in senior management at all – 33% of firms globally in 2016, compared with 32% in 2015[2] – and a decrease in women’s overall workforce participation.[3]

I believe now is the time to take a step back and acknowledge that continuing to do more of the same is not the right way to proceed. We cannot expect to have fundamental (and, more importantly, statistically significant) changes in outcomes if we don’t consider new approaches to driving change. When it comes to truly moving the needle on gender equity, HR is uniquely positioned with the access and the capabilities to ensure the design and implementation of processes that will enable change.

For those of us who have genuinely and passionately pursued gender diversity goals, it is hard to acknowledge that our efforts and investments have not yielded significant change. This, I believe, is why we continue to pursue interventions such as women’s networks lacking executive sponsorship and visibility, women’s leadership programs focusing on how women need to change their behaviors, and the nearly ubiquitous unconscious bias training. Unfortunately, the research on these efforts is clear: they do not yield changes at the point of decision making about who gets senior roles. Much work has been done assessing the effectiveness of unconscious bias training and largely finding it wanting.

Changing minds is difficult, and studies such as Kalev et al. (2006) show that instead of creating more diverse workplaces, unconscious bias and diversity training had either no effect or, discouragingly, even led to small drops in diversity.[4] Women’s leadership programs, though popular with businesses, have been accused of ineffectiveness and even counter-productivity.[5] And while women’s networks and mentorship programs show promise, the few relevant and valid studies of these programs report only modest effects.[6]

Rather than persisting with current approaches, HR must now let go of the failed efforts of the past decade and embrace new and proven ways of creating level playing fields. This leaves the question: where do we go next?

The evolving research around behavioral design and its application to gender equity holds many lessons for HR, shedding light on what we need to do differently when designing our systems, tools, and processes to ensure equitable outcomes. Research around behavioral design tells us that, rather than focusing on awareness raising, HR processes should use a data-driven approach to provide concrete tools for better decision-making. Rather than relying on awareness of bias alone, hiring processes must be deliberately structured to make it easy to avoid biased decisions. Drawing on the success of blinded auditions used by many orchestras in the 20th century to increase the number of female musicians, where musicians auditioned behind screens to conceal their identity and gender,[7] firms have been using technology to blind the recruitment process. Removing headshots and any other demographic information, including names, from job applications before reviewers see them has been shown to increase the chance of women being selected for interview.[8] Following a structured interview process can help to mitigate the inevitable unconscious biases – ‘first impressions’ – and there is strong proof that interview practices comparing candidates to each other can ensure a focus on performance, anticipated future productivity, and economic value.[9]

If designed properly, structure and rigor are more likely to mitigate bias than unstructured or semi-structured processes. It is not enough to say that the competencies we use to define high potential have been shown through studies to be equally represented in both men and women leaders. We must also demand that vendors who license us their high potential definitions demonstrate through vigorous and valid research not only that their definitions of “high potential” are unbiased, but also how these definitions can be applied through talent management processes to ensure gender neutrality. We know when we go to apply these definitions through talent sessions – where leaders identify and discuss talent, succession, and development – that the perceptions of the same behaviors shown by a man and a woman are often interpreted very differently (read: disadvantageous to women). We know from recent studies that highly voluble women are perceived by both male and female observers as less competent/suitable leaders than less voluble women, but the opposite is true of men[10]. Meaning that even when women have the same power or position as men, they are penalized for contributing to conversations in the same way as men. In addition, Bowles[11] extensive research on negotiations and gender has revealed that women are more likely to be penalized for initiating negotiations in the workplace than their male counterparts.

For those of us who have lead talent review dialogues for years, we have seen the detrimental impact to women’s careers of these perceptions. Women are often criticized as too aggressive or, conversely, lacking executive presence or possessing poor communication skills. We assess them as “less ready” than their male counterparts, often leaving them to stagnate on succession plans for years in the same boxes. Our talent management practices must change in order to address head on the detrimental effects of these impressions.

We must assess our HR processes for recruitment, promotion, talent identification, and development to ensure we know what needs to change and what should continue as is. We must educate ourselves and our function about behavioral design and the true and measurable change it can bring. If we don’t take up this mantle, articulate the journey ahead, and lead the way, then who will?

Let’s become the uniquely qualified drivers of change I know us to be!

[1] Catalyst, Pyramid: Women in S&P 500 companies (August 22, 2017).

[2] https://www.forbes.com/forbes/welcome/?toURL=https://www.forbes.com/sites/dinamedland/2016/03/07/todays-gender-reality-in-statistics-or-making-leadership-attractive-to-women/&refURL=&referrer=#6bd420516883

[3] https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.TLF.CACT.FE.ZS?end=2016&start=1990&view=chart

[4] Kalev, A., Dobbin, F., & Kelly, E. (2006). “Best practices or best guesses? Assessing the efficacy of corporate affirmative action and diversity policies”. American Sociological Review 71:6, pp. 589-617.

[5] Bohnet, I. (2016). What works: Gender equality by design. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Pg. 83.

[6] Blau, F. D., Currie, J. M., Croson, R. T. A., & Ginther, D. K. (2010). Can Mentoring Help Female Assistant Professors? Interim Results from a Randomized Trial. American Economic Review, 100(2), 348–52. https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/aer.100.2.348 Blau et. al find that mentorship can lead to an improvement in the ratio of women attaining top-tier career achievements, but that the effect is modest at best and not long lasting. See also Bohnet (2016) pg. 86.

[7] Goldin, C., & Rouse, C. (2000). Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of” Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians. The American Economic Review90(4), 715-741.

[8] Aslund, O. & Skans, O.N. (2012). Do anonymous job application procedures level the playing field? Industrial and labor relations review, 65(1), 82-107. Aslund and Skans show that anonymous application procedures (AAP) helped women to advance but note that individuals of ethnic minorities were equally disadvantaged in terms of job offers under AAP and conventional systems.

[9] Bohnet, 2016, p. 135-137; Bohnet, I., van Geen, A., & Bazerman, M. (2016). When performance trumps gender bias: Joint vs. separate evaluation. Management Science, 62(5), 1225-1234.

[10]Volubility: Brescoll, V. L. (2011). Who takes the floor and why: Gender, power and volubility in organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 56(4)

[11] Brescoll, V. L., & Uhlmann, E. L. (2008). Can an angry woman get ahead? Status conferral, gender, and expression of emotion in the workplace. Psychological Science, 19(3), 268-275. Women’s anger runs counter to societal expectations, and they therefor suffer negative consequences for displays of emotion in the workplace, while men are accorded benefits for similar behavior.



  • 2 November 2017

By Debra Clawar

Debra Clawar is the Managing Partner of Thrive Consulting Group GmbH based in Basel, Switzerland. Thrive focuses on gender equity solutions consulting, high performance teamwork and executive coaching. Debra has a deep professional and academic background in clinical social work, leadership and organizational development, combined with talent management and diversity...


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