Using Behavioral Science to Promote Gender Diversity in Organizations

Gender Diversity | Behavioral science

March 8th is International Women’s Day, a celebrated recognition of women’s achievements. The holiday was first established over a century ago, in 1909, when it was designated to honor women who had protested to improve their working conditions.

We have come a long way in a century, but conversations about gender and diversity in the workplace persist – and for a good reason. Gender inequality is often insidious, but it shows up clearly when we observe the patterns of representation for women in positions of elevated status and leadership.

Behavioral scientists are not immune

Even though many behavioral and social scientists study gender and racial inequality, our field is not immune to its effects.

In the last year, several psychologists have been placed on leave and investigated for serious sexual misconduct, and, despite what you might think if you look at a class of graduating Ph.D. students, our field is overwhelmingly male. Preliminary findings from Dr. Valerie Purdie Greenaway suggest that women make up 43% of faculty in her home field of social psychology, despite the fact that 75% of people earning PhDs in psychology are women. Within the domain of judgment and decision-making research, women make up only 30% of faculty. And when we look at publishing, women are less likely to be the first author on a paper, and their research is less likely to get cited.

What makes people want to diversify their organizations?

Although our field struggles to lead by example, social scientists continue to advance what we know about how best to address inequality and underrepresentation in organizations. Researchers have made strides to develop and test features of diversity initiatives to explore what moves the needle. One initial step in addressing the gender discrepancy is to establish what makes people want to diversify their organizations.

Some of these lessons are likely to come from related domains of inequality research, such as the body of work on racial diversity. In a recent line of research, Dr. Stacey Sinclair studies the effects of framing diversity as “moral” (motivated by fairness and justice) or “instrumental” (motivated by usefulness to the organization as a whole).

Her work finds that white people often prefer instrumental over moral framing, as it makes them feel like they can play a role in contributing to this type of diverse environment. The findings suggest that, to engage all parties in efforts to promote diversity, the message must be palatable to those who are more privileged. However, this appears to come at a cost to minorities; Oriane Georgeac’s work finds that job candidates of disadvantaged backgrounds tend to dislike this instrumental framing of diversity, as it increases the feeling of alienation. Instead, when organizations frame diversity as moral, they tend to look more attractive to diverse candidates.

Do we need small changes or a cultural shift?

Diversity framing is one of many changes that may have small, but significant, effects that compound over time. However, some argue that these approaches may neglect to consider how society fundamentally values behaviors associated with men.

Dr. Sapna Cheryan introduces this concept as the “masculine default bias,” incorporating ideas from sociological theory to suggest that people often need to adopt traditionally masculine features in order to succeed. Stereotypically feminine attributes are similarly devalued, as reflected in research showing that women who display warmth are perceived as less competent.

Rather than trying to make individuals conform to masculine norms, we might instead work to reform the cultural structures within organizations that give way to these disparities. In an example from the computer science department at Harvey Mudd, the proportion of female students increased from 10% to 40% in just a decade. They achieved this feat in part by implementing two changes in their department structure; introductory computer science courses were split into two cohorts (those who had more prior experience and those who had less) to create a more welcoming culture, and female students were exposed to diverse peer networks and female teaching assistants.

In the end, both small cues and changes to the cultural environment will be essential factors in promoting gender diversity within organizations. Enacting change will also require looking beyond the workplace to increase gender equity more broadly. To do so, we need to recognize how certain opportunities are less accessible, and some environments more hostile, for women of color, trans women, and other disadvantaged groups. By using social science to promote diversity in our organizations and communities, we can expand the efforts of early advocates of International Women’s Day.