It's 2018, and you'd have to have been living under a rock for the past few years not to be thinking about gender equality and the unequal barriers faced by women at work. But just because #MeToo has brought the issue to the fore and started people talking about bias, it doesn't mean we've figured out how to actually reduce that bias once we recognize it.

For instance, when many leaders decide to take action to counter stereotypes and old-school beliefs that can make it difficult for women to reach their full potential, they opt for diversity training. There's only one problem with that: It's often worse than useless.

Good intentions often backfire badly

Good intentions are a great place to start when it comes to combating bias, but as a fascinating recent article by social psychologist Tiina Likki for UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center illustrates, good intentions frequently don't lead to good outcomes.

Likki works as a principal adviser to the U.K. government's Behavioural Insights Team in London, and in that capacity she was asked to help design a training for local police, who were concerned that too many female officers were being involuntarily reassigned to less demanding posts after announcing a pregnancy. The police wanted to ensure women officers' careers weren't limited by unthinking assumptions among leadership about what's best for mothers.

Likki's team didn't lack for expertise, and they relied on research to design their intervention. The program they eventually designed leaned on studies showing perspective-taking -- or in layman's language, imaging yourself in someone's else shoes -- increases empathy and busts stereotypes. Still, when they nudged police bosses to imagine the wishes and needs of mothers, the effort failed spectacularly.

"In a randomized controlled trial with over 3,500 managers from the police force, we found no positive impact. In fact, the line managers who completed the perspective-taking task performed slightly worse in hypothetical scenarios asking how they would support female staff," Likki writes.

At least Likki and her colleagues can take comfort in knowing they are not alone in their failure. Research shows "trainings are mostly ineffective at changing behavior and can even backfire, especially when trainings are mandatory and participants resent being sent to the course. Diversity trainings may also fail if they create the illusion that the organization has now fixed its diversity problems," she adds.

What works better than diversity training

All of which is pretty depressing news for the great many leaders of both genders who genuinely want to support the women on their team. But while the news for diversity training is pretty grim, Likki still closes with a ray of optimism.

Mandatory workshops and role-playing might not do much good, but science has shown there are simple, concrete actions that really do help banish bias, such as:

  • Removing names and other markers of gender from résumé​s before they are reviewed

  • Including more than one woman on any shortlist for recruitment or advancement

  • Giving salary ranges when advertising jobs to encourage women to negotiate

  • Using structured rather than free-flowing interviews

  • Establishing clear criteria for promotions and sticking to these benchmarks

  • Conducting regular analyses of data on hiring, promotions, compensation, etc. to identify gender discrepancies

All of these you'll note are not about trying to get inside people's heads and tinker with their beliefs. After being exposed to gender stereotypes for our entire lives, it's incredibly hard to root out the unconscious bias both men and women carry around in their heads.

Instead, these are all concrete actions that tweak systems and procedures to block those biases from manifesting in practice. Until we all do the collective work of rewiring how we understand women's roles in the world, that's a much more realistic (and effective) route to getting the best out of every team member.

Published on: Oct 23, 2018