Until the 1970s, less than 5% of orchestra performers in the USA were female. Today, the number is 50%. What helped? Not an increase in opportunities. But, the removal of bias from interviews. The new process removed traces of gender. A screen was placed between the jury and candidates. And the candidates were asked to audition barefoot, so judges wouldn’t know when women walked in wearing heels. It’s called blind interviewing.

Our workplaces can take a cue from the orchestra and reduce gender bias, by using design thinking. It helps identify aspects of the work culture that may be driving biased outcomes, and how to change them. Here’s how you can apply its five stages to design more fair and inclusive practices:

  • Explore. Pick one aspect of your workplace – hiring, promotion, attrition, etc. Use personal interviews, focus group discussions, observation, and data analytics, to learn about the needs of employees in that aspect. Then analyze the data to find insights about the experiences of women, and the biases that affect their journey.

For instance, you notice high female attrition in a team. You may assume it’s because of family demands, or low career prioritization. But, this process might help you find that they actually leave because they receive stereotype-driven feedback and have low job satisfaction.

  • Identify. Use the exploration insights and identify organizational drivers of gender bias. For example, you found that fewer female applicants apply to mechanical engineering jobs, because the job descriptions are gendered. And the interview questions are unstructured. Take up these drivers and go deeper into the challenges women face due to the bias. Example: what really happens when the interview is not standardized.
  • Ideate. With your employees, brainstorm a range of possible solutions for minimizing the identified challenges. Say, you identified that culturally women feel discouraged to negotiate salaries, and hence settle for less pay. To help them negotiate better, narrow down on three solutions. Tell them that their salary is up for negotiation, allow employees to advocate on behalf of others’ compensation, and ban the disclosure of salaries at previous jobs.
  • Test. Prototype and test the different solutions through pilot programs, with inclusive employee participation and feedback. These pilots demonstrate how each solution works or might work to mitigate bias in real-life situations. Using the negotiation example, ask three different teams to implement one idea each.
  • Evaluate. Collect feedback to assess if/ how the tested solutions are reducing bias. Then improve or reject the prototypes based on this feedback. For instance, to encourage women to take up leadership roles, you created a mentoring program, where women learn from existing male and female leaders. It’s a great idea but isn’t working. Why? Do the sponsoring leaders need mentorship training? Or is there a time commitment problem? Find the answer, and tweak the idea.

Remember, design thinking is a cyclical process. You have to move back and forth between stages, to find one rock star solution. But, also remember that eliminating gender bias is a long journey. It’s personal and involves deep changes in our collective mindset. Lead with patience.

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