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Nudging workplace equality

By Rebecca Trigg

There are little things that we can all do to prompt behavioural change. But can we influence a complex issue like gender inequality through small everyday actions? Marking International Women’s Day, Rebecca Trigg draws on her experience of nudge techniques to share ideas for creating more inclusive and balanced workplaces for everyone.

You probably know that I work in L&D. You probably also know that I’m a woman. And at the recent Women in Learning session at the Learning Technologies conference, I was pretty saddened to hear that the disappointing statistics published two years ago are still valid – in simple terms, 70% of junior roles in L&D are held by women and 70% of senior roles are held by men. I know this is not unusual, and some industry stats are much worse. But I was shocked, all the same.

Exploring this further, I came across a fascinating study which considered how and why this is much broader than a feminist issue. Researchers Robin J. Ely and Irene Padavic dug into behaviours within a global consulting firm and reached their ‘inescapable conclusion’ that the problem stems from a long-hours culture based on overselling and overdelivering.

Paradoxically, the well-intentioned ‘accommodations’ designed to offer flexibility, which were usually taken by women, actually acted to reinforce gender imbalance. The impact? A workplace that is less healthy and less balanced for everybody.

My day job at Acteon is to help clients find ways to promote and sustain behavioural change. Usually in a learning context, and increasingly using the power of behavioural science to nudge people into acting in a certain way. So, after the Women in Learning session, I started thinking about what individuals and organisations could do to create healthier and more equal workplaces. I know from experience that in order to change behaviour at scale you need to think about how we’re all programmed as humans.

Using the Behavioural Insights Team ‘EAST’ framework, here are some ideas for practical ways to nudge behaviour towards everyday workplace inclusion. I’m not a diversity expert – this is just my take on how individuals and organisations could use neuroscience to shift those statistics.

Little actions can make a big impact.

EAST behavioural insights framework

This list of 'nudges for equality' is available as a PDF toolkit. Download, share and pin up on your office wall to help encourage these habits in everyone...


Make it EASY

1. Harness the power of defaults
Humans have a strong tendency to go with the default, as it’s easy to do.

What might that look like?

  • Automatically enrol colleagues in initiatives shown to promote inclusion – for example, women’s networks, mentoring programmes, diversity initiatives. Having to opt out instead of in will likely lead to improved participation and outcomes.
  • When colleagues become parents or need to care for elderly relatives, prompt discussions with both genders around how they might require some flexibility like part-time work or internal facing roles. More women than men work part-time, often prompted by ‘return to work’ conversations after maternity. Include men in these ‘accommodations’ discussions if they become a parent.
  • Use technology to set your default expectations around working hours – for example, you could set the default to be no meetings around school drop off or pick up times, or make core hours 10-4 to allow flex at the start or end of the day.

2. Reduce the hassle factor
Reducing the effort required to do something can increase take-up.

What might that look like?

  • Flip the default of flexible working – make it available for everybody, so it’s the organisation that has the responsibility to design flexible work solutions, rather than making it something the individual must request.
  • Make mentoring or other proven career-advancement initiatives easy to access rather than creating complicated forms or clunky systems that become a barrier to take up. Remove friction to increase participation.

3. Simplify the message
Break down something that might be seen as a ‘complex goal’ into smaller, easier chunks.

What might that look like?

  • Show career paths in easy-to-complete stages. Think of the ‘Couch to 5k’ running app – something that might seem unachievable can be re-framed when ‘chunked’.
  • Align business objectives with diversity objectives – inclusion is good for business. Organisations need employees at all levels that reflect society.
  • Communicate inclusion messages regularly – in a straightforward and meaningful way. Let them echo what your business needs to hear.
    - “We need more women’s voices at senior level in our business”
    - “We want more men to work part-time”


4. Attract attention 
We are more likely to do something that our attention is drawn towards.

What might that look like?

  • Design personalised and flexible career paths. Show individuals how they can become leaders, one move at a time. Humans like personalised offers, designed especially for them.
  • Champion role models of both genders. Look for female leaders who have progressed without sacrificing family-life, power, status or income. Look for male leaders who promote flexible working.
  • Male allies – amplify women’s voices in your organisation; get them on panels, in networks, as event speakers, acknowledge their ideas and initiatives. Make it attractive for junior women to get involved.
  • We all have a bias to support ‘people like us’ – if you’re mentoring or sponsoring someone, don’t just choose a ‘mini-me’ – a behavioural hack to is find someone very unlike you, which if everyone did it would promote diversity across your business.

5. Use rewards wisely
Design rewards and sanctions for maximum effect – financial incentives work but highlight other benefits too.

What might that look like?

  • Reward productivity (greater impact in fewer hours), and penalise “all hours” culture (eg working evenings or weekends, overselling in pitches, overdelivering at the expense of colleague health). The crushing culture of overwork - whilst trying to balance family life - is more detrimental to career advancement life than anything else. This applies to both genders!
  • Share research about the negative aspects of long hours – decreased performance, increased cost of sick leave.

Make it SOCIAL

6. Show that most people perform the desired behaviour 
Describing what most people do in a particular situation encourages others to do the same.

What might that look like?

  • Social norms are important. Men – leave work loudly! If you’re going to pick your kids up from school, watch a school play, or care for an elderly relative; show that men have family responsibilities too. This makes it easier and more acceptable for women, who still do the majority of ‘caring’ tasks.
  • Work out who does the office ‘housekeeping’ – check the gender split of those who are making coffees, organising cards, sorting out lunch orders. Remove any gender bias before it becomes your social norm.
  • Provide universal access to part-time and flexible working – champion those who work flexibly and climb the ladder.

7. Use the power of networks 
Networks lead to collective action, provide mutual support, and encourage behaviours to spread peer-to-peer.

What might that look like?

  • Encourage female colleagues or minority groups to share their experiences – we are all influenced by the people we like, and more likely to apply for a promotion or speak at an event if encouraged by our own ‘tribes’.
  • Negotiate on behalf of others – for pay, for promotions. Under-represented groups often ‘just don’t ask’ but are happy to negotiate on behalf of others. Certain groups have ‘suppressed a sense of entitlement’, so peer networks can help build their sense of self-worth.
  • Male allies – share research with your own networks about the benefits of inclusion and championing female senior leaders. Make inclusion part of your identity – not just a ‘women’s issue’.

8. Encourage people to make a commitment to others
We often use commitment devices to voluntarily ‘lock ourselves’ into doing something.

What might that look like?

  • Design initiatives that encourage commitment and use social pressure to get people out of their comfort zone! For example, getting junior colleagues to speak at an event that benefits others might be the social nudge they need to say yes.
  • Mentoring can be the nudge that some people need, it helps those lacking in confidence to identify and act on opportunities. A shared commitment with a mentor helps people stick to a career plan, despite changes to working lives.

Make it TIMELY

9. Prompt people when they are likely to be most receptive
The same offer made at different times can have drastically different levels of success.

What might that look like?

  • Behaviour is generally easier to change when habits are already disrupted, such as around major life events. Don’t shy away from career and ambition discussions when returning from parental leave – arguably, it’s just the right time!
  • Organisations should practice finding the right time to present new opportunities – humans are more likely to agree to accepting new challenges when they are feeling good about themselves, so after a successful project rather than midway through a stressful period.

10. Consider the immediate costs and benefits.
We are more influenced by costs and benefits that take effect immediately than those delivered later.

What might that look like?

  • If you’re a parent, then there’s an immediate benefit to part-time or flexible working. But what about the long-term cost of that decision? Does the organisation penalise those who choose necessary ‘accommodations’ brought on by family responsibilities? Make data available to people so they can see the lifetime cost of their decisions.
  • Companies should try and nudge staff towards reasonable hours and question gruelling schedules. Temptation is to create a culture of overwork – we are naturally more drawn to short-term gains from brilliantly delivered projects; but the long-term cost is losing talent later on.

11. Help people plan their response to events.
There is a substantial gap between intentions and actual behaviour.

What might that look like?

  • We’re more likely to act favourably if we’ve planned our response. Help underrepresented groups practice taking on more responsibility. Coaching and mentoring programmes help people identify barriers and develop a specific plan to address them.
  • Call out everyday sexism and microaggressions as they happen. Practice finding the right language to address this in your workplace – for example, not accepting interruptions or talking over women in meetings, calling out sexist ‘jokes’ – it all needs to be acted on, particularly by male allies. It’s not okay.

If you’re interested in reading more about nudging equality in the workplace, then there are some links below to stuff that I’ve enjoyed reading. Despite sharing this on International Women’s Day, this really isn’t a women’s issue. It affects all of us, regardless of gender – it’s about making our workplaces healthy and accessible for everybody.

To carry on this conversation, please drop me a line sometime! (rebecca.trigg@acteoncommunication.com)

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