Gender Equality Thoughts from a BAD Conference


After an exciting week filled with events focused on gender equality, starting in NYC and ending in Toronto, I’m happy to be back at my hotel and jumping into bed (laptop in hand, of course).  From the inspirational visionaries at the UN Women’s HeForShe event, to the academic thought leaders at the Behavioral Approaches to Diversity Conference (BAD), I am feeling inspired, curious, challenged and privileged.


As I am processing my thoughts and emotions, I flip on the TV and scan the latest movies.   I’m instantly drawn to Ocean’s 8, as I recognize Anne Hathaway, and remember just two days ago I was watching her on stage moderate the HeForShe Champion panels.  I feel compelled to watch the movie and can’t help but think that the priming effect was working on my choice.


The opening scene shows Sandra Bullock in prison in an orange jumpsuit.  The dissonance this image creates in my mind reminds me of the stereotypes we hold and how they guide our world.  I can’t help but feel a bit annoyed, as my career in market research has permanently ruined my ability to watch commercials blindly, and now my career in behavioral science is ruining my ability to watch movies blindly!   But I guess that’s the point, none of us should be blind to these types of biases.


More so, the dissonance also highlights myprivilege, “ordinary privilege” as Dolly Chugh, social scientist and author of The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias, defined during the BAD Conference.   While I’m certainly not at the same level of success as Sandra Bullock (yet!), I am “privileged” to be a white woman born in America and into a good family, where I was given safety, education and an opportunity for professional advancement that too many women are not granted.


I remember the message I took away from the conference:  as a woman in power, I have the voice and platform to do something.   In essence, this is the same message that the HeForShe movement is built on – – inviting men of power to step up and take action for gender equality, as women are unable to do it alone.   With this mandate, I start my work for the evening.


Looking for inspiration, I thumb through my social media feed. I see many posts from those “high vibe” people I have carefully curated to guide me on my personal journey. People like Sadguru, Gabby Bernstein, Pastor Greg Stamper, Landria Onnka, Spring Washam…   And of course The Dodo!  (Note: If the entire world watched 5 minutes of puppies playing together each day we would all be living in a better place!)


As synchronicity would have it, the first post I read is from Gabby Bernstein about what’s happening on Capitol Hill.   I can’t help but see the irony that this is happening back in the US while I spent time with the UN and in Canada speaking about gender equality.   I scan the comments, and my heart sinks.  As has become commonplace these days, women are arguing with each other, using profanity and putting labels on each other.   It made me feel defeated.


I also can’t help but notice that it is mostly women in the conversation, reinforcing that like the HeForShe movement states, we need to have men lend their voice to the conversation.    But, we know it’s so hard.  We know there are many barriers.


One of the BAD Conference panelists quoted one survey which uncovered that over 50% of men admitted to having committed questionable acts against women in the past.   Additionally, we know that about 1 in 3 women worldwide will become a victim of gender-based assault in their lifetime.   If you do the math, you can quickly see the complexity of the situation.  But on the flip-side we know people change and we also know there is a silent majority of men who want to act for good.


So I asked myself, how can we get individual men to engage with the topic and act for good when they may fear their past, or when they simply fear saying the “wrong thing” (which we know from research is a barrier to act)?  And from an organizational level, how can we get leadership to take action related to gender inequalities when legal counsel may advise them to stay away from “that topic” for fear of opening Pandora’s box?


For me, the answer comes from behavioral economics, in the form of reframing the conversation and through designing “nudges” or behavioral interventions.   Naturally inspired by the BAD Conference and the type of work I’ve been doing at the BVA Nudge Consulting for organizations like UN Women.


First, from a corporate level, we can consider shifting the conversation away from a narrow and potentially sensitive gender equality debate, to one focused on corporate social responsibility (CSR).   Research has shown that corporations increase long-term profits by operating with a CSR strategy, specifically one tied to employee diversity.   Thus, instead of focusing on gender inequality, focus on the CSR “strategy” and its benefits to the company, employees and shareholders.   It becomes about driving a positive business outcome that everyone can get behind vs. fixing a problem.


Secondly, bringing in behavioral scientists to consult on your CSR strategy is critical, since behavioral change resides at its core.   Identify all the barriers to the behavioral change and understand the associated contextual, individual and social influences that can be altered or leveraged in order to drive change that goes beyond that of more classical D&I training or gender quotas.   Importantly, using a method that relies on creativity techniques and co-creation with employees can be very powerful.


And to conclude, let’s think about it from the individual perspective, and what you can do immediately (yes you!).   At the BAD Conference, Iris Bohnet, Academic Dean of Harvard Kennedy School and author of What Works:  Gender Equality by Design, painted two pictures for us.   The first picture was of a pristine beach and the second was of a trash-covered beach.   She asked us, “of these two beaches which one would you be more likely to drop a piece of trash?”   The answer is obvious.   So, I ask you to consider, how clean is your beach?


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