Book review: What Works, by Iris Bohnet

I’ve recently finished reading “What Works: Gender Equality by Design”, a book by Iris Bohnet out on Harvard University Press and it’s one of the best books on gender matters that I’ve read recently. I can seriously recommend it.

She takes a clear topic for each chapter and looks at the literature on behaviour change and design around that topic, considering a broad range of evidence from psychology, anthropology, economics and business to craft a wide research base from which to recommend behaviour modification strategies to support equality. The general idea comes from behavioural design, which is the field of “nudge” units and subtle design tweaks which can steer our behaviour without us knowing. Instead of using these powers for nefarious means (e.g. in advertising), this book talks about using these powers to highlight and rectify inequalities.

For example: orchestras used to be nearly all male. Behavioural design (auditions behind a screen, with a thick carpet to muffle the sound of high heels as the musicians enter the room) has led to a much more equal gender split in classical music. This design didn’t involve changing anyone’s mind about equality, or getting anyone to sign up to targets — it just involved changing the perceptions available to the interviewers.

Part one of the book defines the problem, looking at unconscious bias and the challenge of changing people’s minds; part two looks at talent management (attraction, retention, selection, interviews and so on); part three at education (risk, and levelling the playing field); and the final section looks at diversity in terms of role models, groups, norms and transparency.

The book is full of illuminating studies but one really stood out as someone in teaching: Rosenthal (a psychologist) and Jacobson (the principal of an elementary school) carried out a study in 1966 to look into the effect of teachers expectations. In 18 classrooms, the psychologist tested the kids and informed the teachers that about 20% of them showed the potential for unusual intellectual gains. A year later, this 20% of kids had IQ increases of 12 points on average (compared to 8 for the rest of the class). However the kids weren’t selected by tests, the test results were ignored and the 20% were selected randomly. I literally had to put the book down for a bit and pause to think about what the compounded effect of gender- or race- based bias might be, given this result…

Here’s a https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Iris-Bohnet/What-Works–Gender-Equality-by-Design/22318947 purchase link in the UK; here’s the https://scholar.harvard.edu/iris_bohnet/what-works publisher site.

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