New tools for gender equality

New tools for gender equality: the subtle choices driving profound change


Around the world, advocates for gender equality are discovering the change-making power of a very subtle set of tools.

Iceland's pay parity law is a symbolic breakthrough as gender equality has been growing in global consciousness, boosted by ever-burgeoning research studies highlighting its benefits.



By 2020, Iceland's gender pay gap is set to be history. On International Women's Day it was announced that the country, which for eight years running has led the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index, would be the first to require employers to prove they provide equal pay for equal work to all employees.

The victory belongs in no small part to thousands of Icelandic women who left their workplaces at 2.38pm on 24 October 2016, to protest the gender pay gap outside parliament house in Reykjavík. Their timing was strategic. After that time each day, Icelandic women claimed they worked free due to the pay differential.

Counting the gains of a closing gender gap

Closing the gender gap brings gains on a global scale, including economic growth and national competitiveness according to the UN Panel on Women's Economic Empowerment and McKinsey Global Institute. McKinsey estimates that if women had the opportunity to participate in the economy identically to men they could add as much as US$28 trillion to annual global GDP in 2025, roughly the combined size of the economies of the US and China.

Similar projections by Ernst & Young in the Australian context suggest that if the jobs were available and women and men were able to transition from higher education to employment at equal rates, the Australian economy would gain $8 billion.

The potential economic benefits may be implicit in the UN's decision to name gender equality as one of its Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. In framing the goal, the UN says that ensuring equal access to education, healthcare, employment opportunities and political representation 'will fuel sustainable economies and benefit societies and humanity at large'.

A report released by VicHealth, PwC and Our Watch into the economic cost of violence against women in Australia (estimated at $21.6 billion annually) is part of a growing body of evidence that issues of social disadvantage for women have a substantial impact on the wider community.

Finding and introducing effective mechanisms to bring on gender equality, however, has proved complex. Across the world gains have been made but outcomes have proved patchy.

Employers increasingly are working to harness gender diversity benefits by promoting role models for women in leadership, gender targets, policies for flexible working, and increasing childcare and carer's leave. Progressive governments have mandated quotas for women on public and private sector boards and their parliamentary representation.


Tackling the challenge of unconscious biases

VicHealth is pursuing gender equality with the theme of its second Leading Thinkers residency, Behavioural Insights & Gender Equality, which released its work program earlier this year. The theme builds on VicHealth's history of leading research and supporting programs to prevent violence against women, and continues the Leading Thinkers' support of innovative emerging approaches such as behavioural insights.

"A decade ago VicHealth released a framework and background paper to guide the primary prevention of violence against women which emphasised the importance of promoting equal and respectful relationships between men and women and non-violent social norms," says VicHealth Chair Fiona McCormack. "This residency shows our ongoing determination to make gains on the gender equality issue, this time through a new research lens."

Innovation is at the fore as the three-year residency brings together two global experts in applying behavioural insights methodology to gender equality. One is Professor Iris Bohnet, a behavioural economist at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and Co-chair of the school's Behavioural Insights Group. The other is Dr Jeni Klugman, Managing Director at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, and also a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School's Women in Public Policy Program.

Unconscious biases underpin many of the social norms and stereotypes that work against women and perpetuate gender inequality, argue Bohnet and Klugman.

Drawing on the thinking of Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, whose work gave rise to the field of behavioural economics, behavioural insights look for ways to influence decision-making by overcoming unconscious or implicit biases.

"Everyone has predictable biases they draw on to make decisions," says Dr Rory Gallagher, the Asia-Pacific Managing Director of the UK's Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), or 'nudge unit' which has been working with the British Government since 2010 to find ways to change behaviour.

Giving attitudes a nudge

Gallagher worked on VicHealth's first Leading Thinkers residency in which BIT Chief Executive Dr David Halpern developed a series of behavioural insights trials to gently nudge the public into creating healthier lifestyles.

"We look to behavioural insights for a more nuanced understanding of human behaviour and how we can put tools in place - that are often quite subtle - to bring about behaviour change," explains Gallagher.

One of the gaming representatives on the VicHealth project. Methodology Gallagher highlights is its speed. It leads to quicker and more broadly accepted change.

"If you want to improve gender diversity in your workforce, for example, big macro changes like quotas may be required," he says. "Or smaller changes can be made using different interventions that may impact more subtly on behaviour at key points in recruitment, promotion and on leadership pathways.

"In the second VicHealth Leading Thinkers residency, multiple projects will tackle gender inequality and devise ways to nudge change. One, for example, will draw on behavioural insights to explore how language in job advertisements impacts on the gender split of applicants. Another will examine the incidence of gender bias in the media, in particular in sports reporting.

Making equality part of the company culture

Gender-biased language in recruitment ads goes beyond word selection, suggests Juliet Bourke, Human Capital Partner at Deloitte Australia, one of the organisations participating in the Leading Thinkers recruitment trial. For example, in an advertisement, even the order in which the attributes, qualities and experience required for a role are listed has an impact, she says.

Bourke adds that despite the recent moves towards raising awareness of unconscious bias through training, it's not enough.

"Awareness is an important first step," she says. "People understand what they do builds into a system of norms on how things are done, and this creates a foregone conclusion. Unconscious bias training leads people to want to change themselves and the system, but I don't think it's the complete answer."

A feedback loop, so people can call out unconscious bias also needs to be created, says Bourke. This may manifest as 360-degree feedback on inclusiveness in recruitment, promotion and decision-making.

Deloitte Australia is relatively evolved on gender bias consciousness and inclusivity, a keen focus for its first female CEO, Cindy Hook.

However, the firm's gender split represents the broader population only until it reaches the level of senior management and partnership, where women are about 25 per cent of that group.

"We promote more than 25 per cent of women, but we take in lateral partners, too, and that really changes the final number," Bourke explains.

"Businesses are much more conscious about getting diverse candidates in the door. The emphasis needs to shift to making sure that the people in the talent pipeline stay with the organisation and are promoted. And that means paying more attention to the key moments along the talent lifecycle, like talent identification and development."

Finding recruitment mechanisms that work

Affinity bias - the tendency to hire and promote 'people like me' - has been one of the bedevilling factors in movement towards gender equality in workplaces that are predominantly male and where men hold the majority of leadership positions.

Research shows that de-identification works. The effort to address the historical issue of gender imbalance in orchestras provides an excellent example, as profiled by Leading Thinkers' Professor Iris Bohnet in her book What Works: Gender Equality by Design (Harvard University Press 2016).

"In theory, an orchestra director cares about the sounds coming out of the bassoon, the flute, and the trumpet, not the ethnicity or sex of the person playing the instrument. In practice, the Vienna Philharmonic, for example, admitted its first female player in 1997," she writes.

Professor Bohnet relates the story of the Boston Symphony Orchestra which pioneered the practice of having musicians audition from behind a screen. Other orchestras followed suit, radically altering the gender balance among the top performing orchestras in America which, as recently as 1970, had skewed 95:5 in favour of male musicians.

"To change this, no great technological feat was required, just awareness, a curtain, and a decision," she writes.

But de-identification is not a stand-alone solution. For example, it does nothing to address the difference in access to opportunity and experience felt by men and women since childhood. These details manifest on CVs and can influence decisions around who is shortlisted or hired.

Over the past decade Australia has slipped from 31 to 46 on the World Economic Forum's gender equality ranking due to issues including gender wage gaps.


Australia's patchy progress

Australia has made some gains. According to the Australian Institute of Company Directors, women make up 24 per cent of board directors in ASX 200 companies, up from 8 per cent in 2009.

However, over the past decade Australia has slipped from 31 to 46 on the World Economic Forum's gender equality ranking due to issues including gender wage gaps. The average gap between women's and men's salaries in Australia remains about 23 per cent.

In the wake of the Royal Commission into Family Violence, which found violence is driven by the unequal distribution of power and resources between men and women, and by rigidly defined gender roles, the Victorian Government pledged to implement its more than 200 recommendations.

Safe and strong: a Victorian gender equality strategy shows how gender inequality is perpetuated throughout women's lives, and how its adverse effects interact with other forms of disadvantage and discrimination.

Quotas produce more role models

Debate continues about the unfairness of gender quotas. Wheeler and her colleagues showed that when accompanied by sanctions, quotas were effective in parliaments, boards of directors and in companies across 260 countries.

A major upside for quotas, Wheeler adds, is the delivery of role models. "As the saying goes, 'you can't be what you can't see'."

Women's portrayal in the media

Language is also integral to the second study of the Leading Thinker's residency on media bias, which is exploring how women and men are portrayed in the media.

"Women are under-represented in the news. They're less likely to be featured as subjects or interviewed as experts"

Women are under-represented in the news - less likely to be featured as subjects or interviewed as experts, but particularly under-represented in sports coverage.

A 2014 Australian study of sports media found the split in subject matter was 81 per cent male sports, 9 per cent female, with most of the remainder dedicated to horses (no gender specified).

Sports content is often biased. Gender stereotypes are glaring. When male tennis star Rafael Nadal wins, invariably he's asked about his challenge and hard work. By contrast, at the 2015 Australian Open the seventh-seeded female player, Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, could not conceal her surprise when she was asked by a male on-court interviewer: "Can you give us a twirl and tell us about your outfit?"

Unconscious biases come into play at the first step of the recruitment process when job ads are written.

Opening the door for recruitment

Unconscious biases come into play at the first step of the recruitment process when job ads are written. It's understood that language can serve as a barrier, impacting how applicants feel about their suitability for a given role and consequently influencing their decision to apply - or to abstain. To explore the idea further, VicHealth is running a 'de-biasing job advertisements' trial, designed by Leading Thinker Professor Iris Bohnet. The trial has been included as part of the Victorian Government's RecruitSmarter initiative, and a number of other partner organisations across government, private and not-for-profit sectors will also be participating.

The trial will compare gender ratio outcomes from job ads using gender-neutral language with ads that use male or female language. The scope of this trial is anticipated to deliver world-first insights to show what works, and doesn't work.

"The limited research we have from the US and Europe suggests that women are considerably less likely to apply for jobs with 'male' wording," says Dr Klugman. "We're going to test the impact of purging gendered language. If it does have an impact, then we've found a simple way to diversify the recruitment pipeline for traditionally male-dominated positions and jobs. If it doesn't have an impact, the testing allows organisations to shift their attention and resources elsewhere."

Yarra Trams achieved outstanding results - a 900 per cent increase in the number of female applicants.


A workforce that reflects its client base

Some organisations are already making headway. Intent on getting more women into their workforces, they have been experimenting with language in job ads.

Yarra Trams, for example, achieved outstanding results - a 900 per cent increase in the number of female applicants - after its Driven Women program kicked off in 2014 with a series of ads that used language and stories about empowering women.

"We wanted our workforce to reflect our client base," says Dannielle Jeffrey, manager of talent and capability at the company that operates Melbourne's tram network. The massive turnaround in the number of women applying for roles came from an ad campaign highlighting a culture that values women, flexible hours, safety issues - locked cabins and emergency switches - and earning potential. Tram drivers' annual salaries are around A$75,000 per year for trainees, while experienced drivers earn around A$100,000.

In 2013, only 90 women applied for driver roles at Yarra Trams, where the workforce was 12 per cent women, but in 2014 the new ads shifted the gender emphasis and 891 women applied.

"That year we placed 129 drivers, 104 were women," says Jeffrey. A later television news report on the company's success resulted in a further 1200 expressions of interest from women who wanted to become tram drivers.

AFL's new female role models

It may be demeaning, but it goes further. "Subtle uses of language cloud our perceptions of sports stars and influence community opinions of who should and shouldn't be involved in sports," says BIT's Rory Gallagher.

"240 new women's and girls' AFL teams are being registered around Australia following the popularity of the first season of AFL Women's football in 2017."

Here's the evidence. Some 240 new women's and girls' AFL teams are currently being registered around Australia following the popularity of the first season of AFL Women's football early in 2017. "In previous years, we were hoping to add 10 to 20 women's teams, so that's a phenomenal jump," says Patrick Keane, media spokesperson for the AFL.

Keane admits the AFL executive has been amazed by the response to the women's league which saw its first game moved to a bigger oval. "We thought we might get 14,000, but in the end had a lockout crowd of more than 22,000 to see Carlton and Collingwood at IKON Park, and that snowballed into a fair bit of interest for the remaining season."

The big crowds at live games were maintained. The Adelaide-Brisbane grand final, held at Metricon Stadium on the Gold Coast, exceeded the first-round men's match down the road at Cbus Stadium by several thousand.

There is still progress to be made in terms of TV audiences next year, but the league starts from a solid base with nine matches covered on free-to-air TV in 2017, with a total audience of 5.64 million.

The organisation has opted to consolidate rather than grow the topline women's competition in 2018 while it focuses on the talent pipeline. However, the 2017 season's success suggests that the stereotyping of AFL as a game for males with a corresponding lack of female role models has been holding back women who were eager to play.

Low-level sexism that may be dismissed as 'just joking' is particularly insidious but very real.

Subtle and not-so-subtle sexist language

Unlike their male counterparts, women typically will not apply for a job unless they feel they can address almost all of the criteria. Something as subtle as language can drive better balance in recruitment numbers because it counters the unconscious biases that women have about themselves and their capabilities.

Sexist language was singled out by Professor Robert Wood and Victor Sojo, in a meta-analysis of 103 studies conducted in male-dominated and general work environments, as a major issue for women's performance and growth in organisations. For many, sexual humour and slang, and gender-specific comments are a reason to leave.

Low-level sexism that may be dismissed by the perpetrators as 'just joking' is particularly insidious but "very real", insist the researchers who drew a direct line to its impact on stress levels and women's health.

Quotas produce more role models

Debate continues about the unfairness of gender quotas. Wheeler and her colleagues showed that when accompanied by sanctions, quotas were effective in parliaments, boards of directors and in companies across 260 countries.

A major upside for quotas, Wheeler adds, is the delivery of role models. "As the saying goes, 'you can't be what you can't see'."

Crunching the numbers in sports reports

Women's sporting achievements are often attributed to luck or the support of coaches and trainers, observe Bohnet and Klugman. During their Leading Thinkers residency they are crunching the numbers and using big data analysis for a scientific examination of sexism in sports news reports. To date, most studies that have examined sports news reports have been conducted manually, often with small sample sizes.

Coverage of women's sport may not be helped by the low representation of women in media organisations. The Leading Thinkers study is analysing sports-related coverage in Victoria's 10 highest-circulating newspapers, encompassing some 62,000 reports over an 18-month period. Changing behaviours towards eliminating sexist coverage of women's sports may be as simple as effectively holding up a mirror to show them what they are doing, Bohnet and Klugman believe.

Other effective 'nudges' may be leaderboards revealing which media outlets have the edge when it comes to more gender-balanced reporting, suggests Gallagher, or "protocols for sports reporting, just as there are protocols now for reporting sexual violence and suicide".

Participating in trials a measure of success

Bringing the world's top minds to explore new ways to approach complex health promotion issues is the aim of VicHealth's Leading Thinkers' residency, which connects the international thought leaders with local policymakers and experts. One of its main objectives is to inspire other organisations to test these practices and collectively generate evidence about what works, says Nithya Gopu Solomon, VicHealth's Executive Lead Innovation.

"While it's still early days, many organisations are already seeing value in participating in the trials and in joining us on the journey to learn and share the evidence once we have outcomes. For us that is a key early indicator of success," says Gopu Solomon.

VicHealth's previous focus in gender equality

Over the last decade, VicHealth has used a public health approach to invest in the primary prevention of violence against women. The organisation has worked with partners from a range of sectors to build policy, undertake research and implement programs that promote equal and respectful relationships between men and women.

VicHealth is now working to ensure that this collective body of knowledge is used to inform the work of a growing number of organisations committed to preventing violence against women, including new state and national agencies with a specific prevention mandate.

As the sector has grown and flourished, VicHealth has broadened its focus to consider the relationship between gender equality and health and wellbeing. The VicHealth Action Agenda for Health Promotion has a clear ambition that one million more Victorians will have better health and wellbeing by 2023. Gender equality is vital to achieving this goal.

Read more about VicHealth's vision for promoting gender equality in Victoria here

VicHealth's Leading Thinkers Initiative

We have been working with international gender equality experts to research new methods of tackling inequality.

Dr Jeni Klugman, who shares the current Leading Thinkers residency with Professor Iris Bohnet, writes about the world-first research being undertaken in Victoria and how this initiative can lead to gains in gender equality "at low cost and high speed".

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