The dos and don’ts of gender diversity

Wednesday, 08 February 2017

Greta Thomas photo
Greta Thomas
Co-Founder and Director, Full Potential Labs

    A body of evidence is emerging on how organisations can do a better job identifying and promoting capable women to board and executive positions. Greta Thomas, Co-Founder of Full Potential Labs, surveys the field to find which initiatives work and which don’t.

    Increasing numbers of Australian boards and chief executive officers are becoming frustrated at the slow pace of progress in terms of the numbers of women holding senior management or C-suite roles. I’ve met leaders despairing that their gender diversity initiatives just haven’t been delivering the senior talent pipeline or the change they’d expected.

    A key problem for organisations to date has been a lack of evidence on what works and what doesn’t.

    Now, however, some important studies and data are emerging which can help us all do a better job at implementing diversity initiatives that will actually work.

    1. Don’t implement unconscious bias training

    Studies now show that unconscious bias awareness training, prevalent in many Australian corporates, can be counter-productive and further embed gender bias.

    Organisations that have mandated training that focuses on raising awareness of the potential for bias, actually risk worsening the situation, according to Harvard sociology professor Frank Dobbin and his co-authors who report that compulsory training can spark backlash and actually activate bias.

    Dobbin and his colleagues have also found that diversity training has no relationship to the subsequent diversity of a workforce.

    Organisations that have mandated training that focuses on raising awareness of the potential for bias, actually risk worsening the situation.

    Furthermore, a comprehensive analysis by Yale University academics of almost 1,000 studies examining the full range of existing diversity training in the US found a ‘dearth of evidence’ that any of these programs worked.

    These sobering research examples come from an excellent, recent book (What works – Gender Equality by Design) by Professor Iris Bohnet, who runs the Women and Public Policy program at Harvard’s Kennedy School. She approaches the challenge of achieving gender diversity in the workforce through the lens of evidence-based behavioural design. Stemming out of behavioural economics, behavioural design is about changing required processes rather than trying to change our behaviour or discretionary choices.

    2. Don’t include self-assessments in performance reviews

    There is an abundance of studies to show that men and women have different standards and practices when it comes to assessing their own performance. Women typically underestimate their past performance, while men typically overestimate their past performance.

    Columbia University has conducted several studies on this tendency with men and found it worthy of a name: ‘Men’s Honest Over-Confidence’. Ask any HR leader and they typically confirm that almost without exception, women are significantly more self-critical than men.

    This feeds into self-assessments which impact both gender pay gap and women’s promotion prospects.

    Bohnet says women are more likely to score lower performance ratings and thus influence their overall rating and potential compensation increase. This in turn contributes to the gender pay gap. She additionally says she has found zero evidence to suggest that self-ratings yield any benefits for the individual or the organisation.

    Of course it’s not just self-rating performance reviews that are under question. The whole concept of annual or bi-annual performance reviews and employee rankings is under question as witnessed by a number of companies, such as Deloitte, doing away with these altogether.

    3. Do build women’s confidence

    Confidence lies at the heart of leadership: confidence to surround yourself with people who know more about certain topics than you do; confidence to be vulnerable; confidence to make unpopular decisions; confidence to persuade people to follow your lead and confidence to express dissenting views.

    What we see consistently in the workplace is that while women may have the same medium- to long-term aspirational goals as men, their confidence about opportunities in the near future is often lacking. Sometimes it’s because the women believe the ‘system is rigged’ and against them promotion-wise, but what is also prevalent is the attitude from women that ‘I’m not ready yet’.

    Increasing women’s confidence about their intrinsic capabilities as well as increasing their confidence in their extrinsic corporate prospects should be key priorities.

    Male-dominated work environments often challenge women’s near-term aspirations and confidence even more; a recent (September 2016) CEW Women and Deal research finding reported that 50 per cent of the senior women surveyed said they would not feel confident in the boardroom unless 40 per cent of those in the boardroom were already female. What’s striking about this is that most of the women surveyed were already either in senior management, C-suite roles or non-executive director roles.

    What that survey result means is that 50 per cent of the senior women surveyed would only currently feel confident to be present at 25 of the ASX 200 boardrooms. Increasing women’s confidence about their intrinsic capabilities as well as increasing their confidence in their extrinsic corporate prospects should be key priorities for any organisation serious about gender equality.


    Achieving gender-diverse C-level representation and board representation is clearly not a simple, one-solution answer. Dobbin, Bohnet and other researchers suggest we experiment more with engaging and increasing contact for managers with bias-busting strong minority candidates, appoint diversity champions to increase social pressure to support diversity, use intelligent design (such as eliminating names from CVs in recruitment processes) and offer voluntary training and involvement with diversity initiatives to make a difference.

    The more leaders can experiment with a variety of these tools, roles, processes and programs, the more progress we will make.

    This is an edited extract from the AICD’s latest Gender Diversity Progress Report.

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