United Nations Women: Nudging a Global Movement for Gender Equality


By Jenic Mantashian (EVP of BVA Nudge Consulting USA) & Anne Charon (Head of Transformational Change at BVA Nudge Consulting France).


If you’re anything like us, you most likely feel helpless when faced with the sheer scale and intractability of many of the social issues we face today as global citizens. Whether it’s creating a more sustainable world or eliminating poverty, oftentimes not knowing where to begin can be enough to stop us in our tracks.  On International Women’s Day we are reminded how true this is relative to achieving gender equality in all aspects of our lives. Despite well-meaning intentions, habits and stereotypes are hard to change, and global behaviors are hard to influence.


In a recent experience, we had the privilege to work with the United Nations Women and the HeForShe movement, where men and people of all genders are invited to stand in solidarity with women to create a bold, visible and united force for gender equality. The men who commit to HeForShe work with women and with each other to build businesses, raise families, create corporate and civil practices, and give back to their communities in ways big and small that contribute to supporting women.  Arguably, few social cause goals are more universal and important (and harder to achieve) than this one.


At the center of most social challenges is human behavior. In other words, if you want individuals to live more sustainably, you must change human behavior.  If you want to promote upward social mobility, you must change human behavior.   If you want people to live healthier lives, you must change human behavior.  Once you understand and apply this principle, it becomes substantially easier to tackle any challenge, even if it is as difficult as this one to solve.


Conditions that have led to gender inequality around the world are grounded in cultural norms, stereotypes, confirmational biases, and even unconscious habits that are devilishly difficult to change.  But if you start to examine this challenge through a lens informed by behavioral science, you have a powerful framework that allows you to design relevant solutions to support the behavioral changes you are seeking.


The UN Women’s audacious goal includes high level corporate initiatives to change hiring practices and regulatory activity that even outlaws century old practices in developing countries that denied women health and safety protection. You can find more about what this inspiring initiative has accomplished to date by visiting the HeforShe website here.


A very visible component of that website is the prompt encouraging millions of men across the world to “sign up” committing to the principles of gender equality, thus taking the first steps towards action relating to a seemingly impossible goal.  This simple sign up commitment also provides the social proof that this is desirable behavior for all men to copy.


One of our favorite behavioral scientists Richard Thaler wrote in his seminal book Nudge: “If you want to encourage someone to do something, make it easy.”


Typically, encouraging people to “sign up” would be a simple UX exercise, examining the website navigation from a human factors perspective.  But the barriers to making the choice to “sign up” to support gender equality are deeply rooted in societal and cultural influences.  In order to succeed, the UN Women knew that a more fundamental exploration was needed and looked to us for a behavioral framework that would drive the desired change.


BVA Nudge Consulting has a proprietary behavioral framework we call the Stairs of Change™, which as the name alludes to is a step-wise process that inspires the development of behavioral science strategies and nudges to drive behavior change. The best way to think about our Stairs of Change™ is to imagine you are climbing up four stories of a building, where each of the four stories represents an important stage to behavior change.  As you ascend to the top, you get closer to achieving your end goal.  However, if any of the steps are skipped haphazardly, then you risk collapse.


Foundational to our work with the UN was a broad examination of the problem keeping individual men, governments and corporate leaders from embracing the gender equality vision.  We did this in part by applying the principles of the “Stairs of Change”.


At a highly tactical level we also set on the task of “nudging” elements of the website identifying the behavioral triggers and barriers to encourage adoption and get more men, globally to sign up.


The Stairs of Change™ applied to gender equality.


The first step of our Stairs of Change™ asks us to think about how we “Prepare the Field” for behavioral change.  This is where we think about how to awaken the attention of our target – such as finding the right time, place and messenger.


For example, as was the case of the HeForShe movement, we recognized the potential power of the workplace environment to embed nudges to support our mission.  With many HeForShe Corporate Champions supporting the movement, the idea of using their on-boarding process with new hires as the time and place to establish the gender equality value within the organization was conceptualized. Attention is very high during this period, as is the influence of social norms due to the need for new hires to assimilate into the new environment.  Even better is when the equity message is delivered by the CEO in the form of a welcome video to exploit the transmitter effect.


The second step in our framework guides us to think about how we can “Engage without Effort”.  As mentioned earlier, it is necessary to take the right first step by awakening the attention of the individual, but if you are not engaging in a relevant way, you can fail at this next equally important step.  Here is where we consider how we can speak to their expectations and motivations, and do so in an intuitive way.


From the primary research BVA Nudge Consulting conducted among our target group, we found among a sub-set of men that when the gender equality message was framed and interpreted from a father’s perspective, it connected to them on an emotional level and aligned with their expectations to serve as a provider or protector of their daughters.  As such, we saw that some of the movement’s videos that included this perspective were quite powerful.


The third step in our framework has to do with “Facilitating the Choice.”   When the individual is faced with the choice of whether to act or not, we look at how we can redesign the choice set and the environment in order to facilitate a “low-risk” first step and how we can then minimize constraints.


In conjunction with the primary research BVA Nudge Consulting implemented, we also conducted an audit of the initial website, learning that when people visited the site, there were several barriers that prevented them from “signing up” and making the commitment to the principles of gender equality.  For example, some website elements were more salient and unintentionally guided the visitor away from the commitment button.  Another barrier was the lack of clarity around the commitment process (length, information required) and purpose (what they were signing up for) and thus the website lacked easiness and created the perception of risk.


With this learning, along with other insights, the website was redesigned and subsequently saw commitment rates jump from 2% to 25% following the change.


The last and final step of the Stairs of Change™ approach asks us to look at how we can “Encourage” the behavior and make it sustainable.  For this, we think about things like providing reassurance through feedback, recognizing the behavior through rewards and activating social diffusion.


Given the importance of social diffusion in the context of a global movement, during our engagement we were inspired by Jonah Berger, professor at Wharton and author of Contagious:  Why Things Catch On.  Applying his STEPPS framework, we were challenged to think about appropriate triggers, as well as the use of emotion and stories to amplify the movement.  You can find examples of these elements in successful viral initiatives like the Ice Bucket Challenge and the #metoo movement.


While there are many morals to this story, our main takeaway from this mission with the UN Women is that no matter how ungraspable and difficult a social question may appear, and gender equality is one of the best examples of these, looking at it from a behavioral perspective and addressing it methodologically step-by-step, empowers us to tackle it by paving the way for all to make the first move, to take the first action, and to start engaging.  As Thaler admonished us . . . we can create “nudges” that in aggregate make things “easy”.


We encourage anyone tackling a big challenge to start with Preparing the Field, Engaging without Effort, Facilitating the Choice and Encouraging the change to be sustained.


We are proud to have worked with the UN Women in this brave and bold initiative and we hope more organizations will view the power of “nudge” as means to achieving their goals.  We would be pleased to help you with yours.


By the way, if this article has inspired you, and you feel nudged to do so, visit www.heforshe.org and take the first step and commit.