Recognizing Women’s Work Through Behavioral Design

An interview with Iris Bohnet and Siri Uotila

March 24, 2018

In honor of International Women’s Day this month, we at the Center wanted to learn more about the intersections of gender, conservation, and behavioral design. Who better to ask than behavioral expert, Iris Bohnet, director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of What Works: Gender Equality by Design. She is joined by Siri Uotila, an accomplished research scholar on gender equality in organizations at Harvard University. Together, these two answer our questions about the opportunities to better understand how gender and gender biases influence conservation work.

What motivates organizations to de-bias around gender?

There is a lot of evidence to suggest why exactly gender equality is a real advantage for organizations. One of our favorite studies by Anita Williams Woolley (at Carnegie Mellon) and collaborators illustrates that gender diverse teams perform better than homogeneous teams. In this study, 700 people were assigned to groups of 2-5 and evaluated on their performance on various tasks (e.g., puzzles, moral judgments, negotiations, checkers games against a computer). The researchers found that individual team members’ average intelligence was a bad predictor of the team’s collective intelligence, which in turn was the key determinant of the team’s success. However, the higher a team scored on social sensitivity (e.g., speaking opportunities were distributed equally, there were more women in the group), the higher the collective intelligence and hence the team’s overall performance. Women scored higher on social sensitivity than men and thus provided the glue that allowed the whole to exceed the sum of its parts. So, diversity is indeed a strength for teams and organizations.


Women’s roles continue to be crucial in natural resource conservation and stewardship around the world. How might Rare be able to better leverage and empower their voices at the decision making table in countries or cultures where gender roles dominate?

This is a fantastic question. We believe strongly that every single individual and organization in the world has a role to play in advancing gender equality, whether as a direct actor or as a “bystander.” A simple but extremely powerful way we can do this is micro-sponsorship — or, in plain terms, lifting up others around us. Micro-sponsorship is the small acts of support and help that people provide each other on a day-to-day basis. You can think of it as advice and advocacy in the moment: publicly acknowledging a colleague’s key contribution in a meeting; giving credit to the right person; and bringing up the names of diverse talent as candidates for desirable assignments, presenter roles, and/or promotions. Besides individuals, organizations like Rare can also serve as micro-sponsors of women, and this can be especially influential in cultures where women are not typically seen in leadership positions. Consider highlighting women’s conservation work through articles, videos, and interviews; bringing women as speakers to conferences and events in these regions; and sponsoring opportunities for women from these regions to participate in conservation work at the global level.


Rare’s approach to influencing conservation behavior uses emotional appeals, social incentives, and choice architecture. How do you think these three principles could relate or apply to de-biasing around gender and designing for diversity?

Emotional appeals, social incentives, and choice architecture are powerful core concepts of behavioral design that have wide-ranging applications, including to designing for diversity. A very powerful framework that brings these concepts together is EAST, which was developed by the UK Behavioural Insights Team from early 2012. Their aim was to help policy makers and practitioners identify effective behavioral approaches to encourage behaviors through a simple and memorable framework: in other words, making it Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely to do the desirable thing. Making it Easy is about removing unnecessary hurdles to doing the desired thing. In the context of gender, this could mean posters in conference rooms that remind people about inclusive meeting norms, or crowdsourcing and creating a list of diverse potential speakers for future events. Making it Attractive is about drawing attention to the issue and framing it in such a way that people will want to be part of the “herd.” We’ve worked with a company that encouraged senior male leaders to mentor and sponsor junior female colleagues by offering all pairs a private lunch with the company’s CEO – talk about an attractive, attention-grabbing incentive to do the desirable thing! Making it Social is about harnessing people’s inclination to compete, fit in, and gain approval. One of us (Iris) worked with a professional services firm a few years ago that introduced little red flags that colleagues could raise whenever someone violated the commonly agreed-upon standards of behavior. This simple, low-cost intervention drew attention to the desirable and undesirable behaviors in teamwork and allowed people to learn and adjust in the moment without criminalizing transgressions. Lastly, making it Timely is about setting achievable and time-bound targets for achieving the goals you have set for yourself. A great example is the UK’s effort to gender diversify their corporate boards. From 2011 to 2016, the share of female board directors in the country’s 100 largest companies (the FTSE 100) more than doubled from 12.5% to over 25%, exceeding their publicly stated target for that five-year period.


There are some stereotypes that sustainability and conservation work looks and feels “feminine.” At the same time, there remain sectors of environmental work (e.g., energy) that have low female representation. How might you suggest using behavioral design to help our field be more broadly inclusive to all genders?

Role models are incredibly important in shaping our beliefs about what is possible and achievable. An extensive body of research shows that role models help change behavior, and symbolic role models can make people feel included or excluded. Examine things like the pictures on your walls; the articles and photos on your website and externally-facing brochures; the people whom you highlight in your articles and communications; the names of conference rooms in your office; and the individuals featured in the annual holiday video. Do they represent the diversity and inclusion that you are aiming for? In some cases, this might mean highlighting more men (perhaps in the stereotypically “feminine” areas of conservation); in others, showcasing more women (perhaps in energy or engineering). Seeing is believing. Another way to shift perceptions and social norms is to frame the discussion to create “herds.” Descriptive norms that describe how things are today (e.g. that there are very few women working in the energy field) can very easily turn into prescriptive norms that people take to describe how things should be. You can start shifting these norms by focusing your communications on the behaviors and actions that you are encouraging and building momentum behind those positive behaviors (e.g. “75% of our employees recycle on a daily basis” instead of “25% of our employees do not recycle”). That way, you can use norms to your advantage and direct people towards a positive trend instead of a negative one.