Notes on Gender Equality by Design

What Works Gender Equality By Design Cover.jpg

Iris Bohnet is a Professor of Public Policy at Harvard. Her new book, “What Works: Gender Equality by Design”, is amazing. It’s full of research-backed recommendations for moving the needle on diversity. Here are my notes, but you should really just buy her book.


  • When cues about a position’s typical wage range is clear, women are as good as negotiating as men.
  • When employees are prohibited from discussing their salaries with each other, pay discrimination by sex and race is more likely to persist
  • 93% of women do not negotiate their initial offer. 43% of men do this
  • Those who are willing to negotiate advance quicker; performance is not necessarily what gets you promoted
  • Managers have a negative perception of women who ask for a pay increase. The same does not apply to men.
  • Leaning in can backfire. To “lean in safely”, invoke someone else like a supervisor when negotiating. “My team lead suggested that I talk to you about my comp because its not clear to us if its at the top of the pay range”
  • Mentors of women tend to be less senior, have less organizational clout, and they don’t advocate for them as much as mentors of men do for their proteges.
  • Emphasizing meritocracy and merit-based reward practices leads to greater male favoritism
  • Evaluating people sequentially leads to biased conclusions. Comparing people solves this problem.
  • Job postings for male-dominated jobs contain more words like “competence” that signal to women that they don’t belong. This happens in letters of recommendation too.
  • 40% of the gender gap in SAT Math scores can be explained by the unwillingness of women to guess
  • When Asian girls were reminded of their ethnicity, they performed better on Math tests than when they were reminded of their gender
  • Women underestimate themselves, men overestimate themselves
  • When there are only women in the room, women do better at competitions
  • Before 1975, some states still declared men and women adults at different ages
  • Seeing women in leadership positions increases women’s self-confidence and changes both men and women’s beliefs about what an effective leader looks like
  • When there are significantly fewer women than men in senior positions, the senior women are less likely to mentor other women because they see them as competition
  • Men are more likely to support women’s causes when they have daughters
  • Male CEOs who have daughters, especially firstborn ones, are associated with a difference in female employees’ wages
  • The more daughters a male Danish CEO has, the better his employees are paid
  • Start-ups with highly paid women among their first hires were more successful and stayed longer in the market than all-male start-ups
  • People are more willing to accept an unfavorable outcome if they believe the process was fair, but some people don’t believe that quotas are fair
  • The “pipeline problem” is real in some fields like STEM, so quotas might not be realistic
  • Assigning responsibility for diversity to people or groups of people is strongly associated with an increase in workforce diversity

Action Items

  • Invite people to negotiate
  • Be transparent with what is negotiable
  • Have people negotiate on behalf of others
  • Hire & promote in batches, comparing candidates against others in the batch
  • Remove clues that might trigger performance-inhibiting stereotypes
  • Adjust risk when gender differences may bias outcomes
  • Managers should give their reports feedback about their performance, instead of asking them to self-assess
  • Diversify the portraits on your office walls
  • Increase diversity in leadership roles through quotas or other means
  • If you cannot include more than one woman in a team, keep it homogenous so that nobody is a token member
  • Use rankings to motivate people to compete on gender equality
  • Use rules, laws, and codes of conduct to express norms
  • Make specific people responsible for diversity and hold them accountable