Fireside chat with Harvard professor and Credit Suisse board member on “gender equality by design”

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From left to right: Yannick Blättler (NEO), Nils Bircher (NEO), Petra Ehmann (we shape tech), Professor Iris Bohnet (Harvard, Credit Suisse), Janine Fuchs (we shape tech), Kujtesa Kryeziu (NEO), Professor Lino Guzzella (ETH Zurich), Valentina Vergallo (NEO), Sarah Bieri (NEO), Loris Niederberger (NEO)

Two weeks ago, the NEO network and we shape tech hosted their first event together! They filled over 430 seats in the largest auditorium at ETH Zurich, the Audimax, while over 100 people on the video stream watched the entire fireside chat live. Thank you, NEO network, for being such a strong collaboration partner – particular thanks goes to Nils, Yannick, Loris and Dani. And thank you, Credit Suisse, for being our exclusive sponsor to this event!

Harvard Professor and Credit Suisse Board member, Iris Bohnet, did not only attract this large crowd but kept it also highly energized, engaged, entertained and inspired. What works to establish gender equality? And what doesn’t work? Professor Bohnet drew upon research performed globally over the course of various decades, filled with the one or the other anecdote.

Event fotos and full video recording

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The president of ETH Zurich, Prof. Guzzella, opened the event and set the stage for an event with this prominent guest speaker. His presence showed that gender equality is not only a topic that is of importance to ETH Zurich, but to society in general.

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After the introduction of star professor, Iris Bohnet from Harvard, the host, Petra from we shape tech, steered the conversation quite determined and with a dry sense of humor to the first question on gender equality.  Based on research by Lean In and McKinsey, over 50% of men and 30% of women are OK that currently 90% of top management globally is filled with men. If so many people are satisfied with the status quo, why shall we change it and increase diversity – asked she. The tone was set to a light hearted yet serious conversation to an otherwise quite academic topic. Diversity is needed for mainly two reasons, explained Professor Bohnet, being quick-witted. First, gender equality is a basic human right and second, diversity offers also economic benefits such as higher revenues if teams are equally balanced with males and females.

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Iris Bohnet enjoyed visibly to share research findings such as underlying the “power of unconscious bias in the moment”. One of them was the competence-likeability paradox. In a research study based on a real persona, this persona’s resume got handed to one set of study participants under her real name, “Heidi Roizen”, and to another set of participants under a male name, “Howard Roizen”. Interestingly, despite the participants ranked Heidi’s and Howard’s competence equally, they liked Howard much better. This implies that women can’t have it both: either they are successful yet not liked, or they are not successful but liked.

When it comes to how to establish gender equality, one of the biggest obstacles is our own subconscious judgement. We oftentimes automatically stereotype people without being aware of it. For instance, mothers face “motherhood penalties” whereas fathers face “fatherhood premiums” because a working mother goes against the stereotype of a caring mother. A father will be perceived as a more stable employee compared to a mother and if we continue those thoughts: who would an employer prefer to hire, a stable employee or one that doesn’t take care of her kids? Consequently, if we want to establish gender equality, we need to filter out stereotypes in our decisions. But how can we do that?

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One easy and common attempt to filter out stereotypes are diversity trainings such as “bias busting” or “unconscious bias”. But they don’t work because our “minds are pretty stubborn beasts” and eventually it is just “money down the drain”, reminded us Professor Bohnet. US companies alone invest every year USD 8 billion into diversity trainings, despite research studies show no correlation between a diverse workforce and diversity trainings over the course of three decades (source). Diversity trainings seem to be an inefficient instrument to increase diversity. 

 

If diversity trainings don’t work, what if women try to lean in their jobs, negotiate their salaries, ask for a promotions, speak up, etc.? Professor Bohnet warns that this approach might be risky for women because their behavior would be counter-stereotypical. If a woman asks for a pay raise, she will be perceived as aggressive because her behavior deviates from the stereotype of a caring and nurturing mother. But Iris Bohnet explained that if women negotiate on behalf of another women, they doen’t get penalized for asking for something! She gave an example of a company that employs a male and a female ‘negotiator’ who employees can send off to negotiate their salaries, pension funds, etc. Both the female and the male negotiator achieved the same results. What does that mean for us? Iris Bohnet encouraged us women to team up more and to stand up for each other.

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Let’s get back to our original question of how we could achieve gender equality. While diversity trainings don’t work, doing it yourself doesn’t work either. How else could we achieve equality? There are quite a few levers and her book “what works – gender equality by design” shows optimism towards its feasibility. She recommends that we should “not de-bias our minds, but fix the system”. Our brains are stubborn and we cannot eliminate stereotypes easily and quickly, instead we should change the underlying rules of the system so that rules neutralize stereotypes and allow men and women to develop freely. 

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One way of changing the underlying system is through “blind auditions”. Leading American orchestras had less than 5% women in the 70ies. At that time, even prominent conductors such as Barenboim were convinced that they hired only the best musical talents. After introducing a curtain to the auditions, the percentage of female orchestra members increased to over 40% nowadays and “blind auditions” increased the chances of women to be hired by 50%. If we were to apply “blind auditions” to other industries outside the music business, would it work? Yes, says Iris Bohnet, pointing towards software companies such as textio or gapjumpers who offer products that help eliminate stereotypes in the hiring process.

 

And other than changing the system, can’t we get to the roots of stereotypes and erode them over time? Yes, we can do that in fact is her answer, but it takes time. Consider that it took 40 years to put a man on the moon and 83 years to achieve gender equality globally at the current velocity of change. There are a few things that we could speed up for instance. The best example to show that human minds indeed change is one of the Indian 1993 legislation which Iris Bohnet explained. India introduced an amendment to the legislation to demanding that a third of all mayor positions were reserved for women. The first generation of women had a rough time, hated their jobs and left them eventually. The second generation however profited from their predecessor’s work and enjoyed their jobs better. “Mindsets were starting to change and people started to believe that political leadership could be about women” she explained. More and more parents got convinced that their daughters should become politicians. After the second generation of female leaders in politics – which took 2 terms of 4 years each – society got used to female leadership and stopped attributing leadership solely with men. 

 

Increasing diversity is important to our society, economy and to our individual development. To achieve it, let’s not waste our resources with methods that are uncorrelated towards achieving this goal, but let’s focus on methods that work. For instance, let’s provide more visibility to role models that are in counter-stereotypical positions and let’s change the underlying rules of our system, but not the people. To all CEOs and HR bosses: you have some work ahead of you 😉 To the rest of us: If you see another woman doing a great job, give her a shout out because if she shouts out herself, she will get penalized. Let’s become each other’s change makers. Let’s shape tech!

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Thank you very much to Nils, Yannick, Loris, Dani from the NEO network.

Thank you to our fantastic sponsor, Credit Suisse, for making this great event possible.

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