Why Diversity & Inclusion needs Behavioural Science

Bibi Groot

Jun 22, 2022

Everything we do at Fair HQ is built on behavioural science. Behavioural science helps us understand why humans behave the way we do, and how we can encourage people to make better, fairer decisions. It’s all about tiny tweaks that add up to huge shifts. Here’s how we can employ behavioural science to overcome barriers, de-bias our processes, and grow diverse & inclusive organisations.

We’re all human

Saving for our pension, turning up to a doctor’s appointment, quitting smoking… they all have one thing in common. People want to do these things, but then get stuck on the execution. They forget, procrastinate, or struggle to follow through.

That difficulty to stick to our goals isn’t just limited to our health or finances. Where else do we typically set impressive goals, but then tend to lose steam over time? Exactly. Diversity & Inclusion initiatives are often plagued by these same challenges. Why don’t we simply make the decisions we know benefit us in the long run? Because we’re human. 🤷

How we make sense of the world around us

We live in an overwhelming world. Our brains are bombarded with 11 million pieces of information every single second. We can’t consciously process all of that. In fact, 99.99996% of all incoming information is sorted into neat queues by our unconscious mind. Only 40 to 50 bits make it into consciousness.

To navigate our world, we use simple rules of thumb that help save mental energy (in academic terms, we call these heuristics). For example, we rarely consciously think and plan before we pick up our favourite jam from the shelf, start our morning commute, or open up our laptops to check our email. In fact, 90% of our thinking is automatic.

A man walking across a grass lawn, cutting across the paved walk ways.

Shortcuts... they're everywhere.

But our mental shortcuts and snap judgements aren’t perfect. Have you ever thought a bottle of wine was better, just because it was the pricier option? Or felt worried about a shark attack while swimming in the sea? That’s our automatic thinking playing tricks on us.

Have you ever spotted a suspicious fin-like shape in the ocean and felt your heart racing, only to realise it’s a harmless bit of seaweed? The chances of getting killed by a shark are 1 in 3,748,067. But our brain doesn’t rationally compute the risk – we just rely on automatic judgements to keep ourselves safe. See 18 things more likely to kill you than a shark.

How we make decisions

We make hundreds of decisions each day. Most of these are fairly inconsequential – like what to wear to work or whether to make a curry for dinner – but some are, in fact, important. Where you’d want to slow down to make sure you reach the best possible conclusion. Who to hire for the new role, who deserves that promotion.

But again, we’re human. Our assumptions and mental shortcuts influence our decisions without us even realising it at all. And little, seemingly irrelevant details can throw us completely off course.

Let’s take a look at a real-world example.

In the 1970s, orchestra musicians were an overwhelmingly homogenous group: 95% were men. In short: men were ‘the norm’. Implicitly, this fed into the stereotype of what an orchestra musician ‘should’ look like.

Realising they might unintentionally be discarding excellent potential musicians (and that bias might be to blame), directors made a simple change to their process. Instead of watching the musician perform on stage, they put up a curtain and hid the musician from view while they listened to them play. This left the orchestra director to focus only on the quality of the music, liberated from the assumptions and stereotypes about what the musician should look like.

This small tweak created a huge impact over time. Today, almost 40% of orchestra musicians are women.

Two violin players rehearsing in a concert hall.

Using behavioural science to design powerful tweaks

The orchestra auditioning curtain is a prime example of behavioural science. Small tweaks to our policies and processes can help people cut through the noise and make better decisions.

But before we jump to solutions, let’s make sure we’re targeting the right barriers. Behavioural science doesn’t just help craft impactful interventions, its frameworks also give us tangible tools to understand why people behave the way they do.

… and understand where most change initiatives get stuck

It’s important to investigate what difficulties people commonly come up against along their D&I journeys. When we understand the barriers to progress, we can help break them down.

Behavioural science frameworks help us apply theory to practice. They enable us to understand human behaviour at a fundamental level, which ultimately allows us to create successful processes and initiatives that go with the grain of human behaviour. 🌾

Common barriers to action

  • Ability: “Where do I start?”. Lacking the resources, time, or self-confidence to take action.

  • Timing: “It’s not the right time.” We get stuck focusing on urgent projects, but what about the important ones that don’t have short-term pay-offs?

  • Experience: “I’ll face pushback anyway”. If you’ve experienced or seen D&I work being ‘too hard’, it can create an obstacle to action.

How can we address them?

  • Ability: Reduce uncertainty about what’s ahead, simplify the task, and break tasks down.

  • Timing: Bring the long-term benefit of D&I initiatives into the present moment, making it more tangible. Setting clear deadlines & reminders also helps to get started.

  • Experience: To reframe and overcome negative prior experiences, use the power of fresh starts and ‘small wins’.

Many D&I solutions purport to get you big results, but under scrutiny, they fail to create long-lasting behaviour change. Things like diversity training might help build some awareness, but now take any other area of your business. If you were trying to make performance reviews fairer, would you be satisfied with an uptick in awareness about bias? Or would you want to see actual changes in managers’ behaviours?

That’s why we need to bet big. Not on one-off online training or awareness months, but smart tweaks to our environment that help shape positive behaviour. Let’s focus on changing structures, not people.

Practical actions you can take, infused by behavioural science

So let’s take a look at some example process changes you can make right away, at little to no cost. Each of these actions is backed up by robust evidence that it works. Obviously, every context is different, so we recommend you also test, learn and adapt.

  1. Run a standardised interview process, where you assess candidates consistently and ask the same questions in the same order
  2. Conduct an ‘opt-out’ promotion cycle, where you automatically consider every eligible candidate, rather than waiting for them to put up their hand 🙋
  3. Rotate office housework tasks to reduce the burden on women
  4. Advertise all roles as flexible by default (ideally including part-time and role-share options)

Fair HQ helps you embed processes that cut through the noise and bias. Paired with fair policies and inclusive behaviours, you’ll set yourself up to create a diverse, open and inclusive environment.

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  • Behavioural Science: the study of human behaviour, at the intersection of Economics, Psychology and other social sciences. Think of it as a special lens we can apply to our actions and interactions.
  • Behavioural design: applied behavioural science, with the ultimate aim to create behaviour change. Small changes to contexts help people make better and healthier decisions. For example: placing healthy snacks at the check-out counter, or hiding demographic information from CVs. Both are small tweaks to the decision context.
  • Barrier to action: anything that reduces the likelihood that someone takes the intended action. Distraction, wrong timing, not understanding what’s required to take action, lack of resources, lack of skills, or lack of belief you can be successful at completing the action are broad categories of barriers to action.
  • Behavioural science framework: systematically incorporates theory about the human mind and behaviour to help decide which specific techniques and tools to apply to the challenge at hand.

Back it up

Anand, R., & Winters, M. F. (2008). A retrospective view of corporate diversity training from 1964 to the present. Academy of Management Learning & Education.

Bohnet, I. (2016). What works. Harvard university press.

Dobbin, F., & Kalev, A. (2016). Why diversity programs fail. Harvard Business Review.

First Round Review (n.d.). Eight Ways to Make Your D&I Efforts Less Talk and More Walk.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Sergeant, D. C., & Himonides, E. (2019). Orchestrated sex: The representation of male and female musicians in world-class symphony orchestras. Frontiers in psychology.

Wendel, S. (2020). Designing for behavior change: Applying psychology and behavioral economics. O’Reilly Media.