Book Review – What Works: Equality by Design

September 18, 2018 | | View Comments

by Jess Charlap

Book Review Design Museum BostonGender equality is good for businesses and the right things to do, but how do we get there? Author Iris Bohnet brings decades of research into unconscious bias, behavioral economics, and business administration to the problem, as well as personal experience as the Dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. If you are a fan of “Predictably Irrational,” “Thinking Fast and Slow,” or “Nudge,” this book is for you. And if you want to promote gender equality based on science rather than wishful thinking, this book is definitely for you.

Professor Bohnet mixes anecdotes with overviews of data-driven experiments from the lab and the real world. She unpacks the success of blind auditions in orchestras and the over-reliance on interviews at medical schools. She emphasizes, again and again, the rigor of the studies that have led to her conclusions.

Professor Bohnet starts by going over the depressing statistics about women in business and leadership roles. Some readers will be all too familiar with the concept of being judged by likability rather than competence (hello US politics), and the systemic problems that can’t be fixed by better-negotiating skills and the “Lean In” movement. The book then lays out strategies for using data and experimentation for attracting, hiring, and promoting in business and academia.

The focus is on finding the low-hanging fruit; maximum impact for minimal effort. Some useful methods have been discussed elsewhere, such as the importance of role models and transparency. New techniques, at least to me, were the pluses and minuses of quotas, and some interesting research on forming groups.

Professor Bohnet ends the book with a short but powerful chapter on Designing Change, inspiring the reader to gather specific, detailed information, experiment, and make it easy for biased minds to make unbiased choices. The cycle of design, prototype, measure, and iterate works especially well for the types of social intervention Professor Bohnet advocates.

Throughout the book, Professor Bohnet provides examples of resources, such as an interview checklist and an energy bill that compares consumers with their neighbors. Again, simple interventions that can have a big effect.

Design Museum Boston Book Review











Social Equity is one of the Design Museum’s twelve Impact Areas. Recent events include “The Business Case for Diversity” panel event last May, and Melissa James’ great talk in February on “The Roadmap to an Inspiring Career.” A future exhibit will focus on design careers and diversity in design industries.

The design world is both parts of the problem of gender equity, having far fewer female leaders than we should, but has great promise to be part of the solution of gender equity. Shining a light on the choices in the world is what design does. Remember, “design is everywhere.” When managers make choices that limit women’s careers, that is a key opportunity to design that process differently.

What I liked about this book, outside of addressing an issue I feel is critical, is the way that it integrates behavior economics and design thinking. These two approaches to solving human problems are powerful alone but amazing together. Economists and Designers are the odd couples the world needs right now.