Nudge Theory and Gender Equality


Following on from International Women's Day, I have been inspired and challenged by those internal and external to my organisation to think about practical actions that can be taken to achieve gender parity in the workplace.  I note here that diversity is not limited to gender, but also sexuality, nationality, age and disability.  My reflections apply to all of the categories.

At the IPAA International Women’s Day dinner I attended last night, Her Excellency Linda Dessau AM, Governor of Victoria, the newly appointed Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins and former head of the Australian Public Sector Commission, Carmel McGregor all reinforced:

  •  Statistics are only one measure of progress, and they aren’t enough;
  • Leadership from the top is crucial, but this is not where the problem exists.  The Male Champions for Change has (and is) an incredibly powerful cohort who are committed to making a change.  Gary Wingrove, CEO of KPMG is an active and passionate champion, as is Adam Fennessy, Secretary of the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.
  • However, leadership from the top isn't enough.  Women need pathways and opportunities to learn, contribute and disrupt. 
  • The need for courage, questioning, exposing and using personal experiences to fundamentally change the status quo. 
  • Don’t deny the problems exist.

I hear so many stories from women, from both the private and public sector, who want to 'climb the ladder' and 'lean in' but they don’t have the avenues to do this.  And the unconscious signals that are given by the system reinforce behaviours and unconscious bias - think all male selection committees, panels or speakers. 

Iris Bohnet, Director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School speaks of  'gender equality nudges', little changes that may have large impact. “We need to de-bias organizational practices and procedures,” said Bohnet. 'Mindsets will follow.'

In the Harvard Gazette article Bohnet details how some nudges can be surprisingly simple, including making sure that role models and diversity is visible:

"About a decade ago, says Bohnet, 'we realized that all of the portraits' in the Kennedy School “were of men. Under the leadership of Jane Mansbridge, we’ve since commissioned portraits of women leaders,” from Ida B. Wells, journalist and suffragette, to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia."

I regularly represent KPMG at a range of functions including Boardroom luncheons and industry events.  On many occasions I am the only woman in attendance, and recently raised this with the CEO post an event held in a wood panelled room of a distinguished university, with portraits gazing down watchfully.  He confided that they often  struggle to attract the participation of women and are more than a little embarrassed by it.  As I gazed around the room at the demographic, I immediately offered to introduce half a dozen amazing women to this group and broaden the network. 

I believe the need for courage, questioning, exposing and using personal experiences to fundamentally change the status quo.  Sometimes I get into trouble.  Actually probably more than sometimes!

Research into diversity and gender in the workplace clearly illustrates the need for senior women to authentically share their experience and mentor other women in the talent pipeline

I have a strong desire and commitment to helping others succeed. I believe it is part of my responsibility as a leader to build the next generation of talent.  And if that means I am a little bit of a troublemaker, I'm okay with that!

Ceinwen McNeil