Book Reviews Finance & Development, March 2016, Vol. 53, No. 1
This Works Iris Bohnet
What Works: Gender Equality by Design
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2016, 400 pp., $26.95 (cloth).
I was struck by my reaction to Iris Bohnet’s promise in the closing chapter of What Works that “we can reduce gender inequality.” It evoked the image of Rosie the Riveter, iconic symbol of female empowerment, saying, “We Can Do It!” The immediacy of my response was a potent reminder of how ingrained our subconscious biases can be.
Bohnet elegantly and expansively demonstrates how such biases can be obstacles to gender equality. What sets her approach apart in an increasingly crowded field of gender-equality literature is her use of behavioral design to offer practical—and often intuitive—solutions.
What Works takes full advantage of the expanse of recent gender analysis and literature. Bohnet begins by reminding us of the biases that surround us and recapping the business case for gender equality. She recounts the value of increased female labor force participation for productivity, income, and economic growth, among others.
That is not to say What Works is just a compendium. Far from it. The majority of the book focuses on weaving together the many strands of the gender debate, producing a rich and interconnected narrative of the barriers to progress that biases present. And of these biases she even laments that “depressingly, unlearning is basically impossible.” That is where behavioral design comes in, as “the most useful and underutilized tool we have.”
Many of the individual strategies and policy actions called for in traditional debate seek to induce a conscious response that will help promote inclusion. We’re asked to “lean in,” adopt a “consider-the-opposite approach,” or be “more deliberative” in considering diversity issues. Bohnet recognizes the benefits but also the pitfalls of these approaches. Not because she considers diversity training bad or gender targets wrong. But because the environment does not always lend itself to these interventions and actions being effective. We succumb to our biases.
Bohnet illustrates this point well. Inaction or inertia can undermine the need for a conscious response. One such example, albeit not gender focused, is the greater success of opt-out than opt-in retirement saving plans. (Most of us are too lazy to opt in!) And measures intended to promote inclusion can even have the opposite...