Behavioural Approach to Diversity Conference - Our Notes

How can we apply behavioural science to diversity and inclusion in order to create more effective solutions? This is one of the many questions answered at the Behavioural Approach to Diversity Conference hosted by the Institute for Gender + the Economy (GATE) and Behavioural Economics in Action (BEAR).

With so many world leading academics and practitioners packed into one day I have so many learnings to share with you.

In these notes you are going to see:

  1. Insights into the root causes of inequality from world leading child psychologists and the TDSB’s Superintendent of Equity, Anti-Racism & Anti-Oppression

  2. How we can move beyond social media campaigns and towards real change

  3. Why we need to bring masculinity into the D&I conversation and how to do it

  4. Iris Bohnet’s views on how changes to organizational design can help reduce inequity in talent management

  5. Takeaways from Alice Eagly’s research into 60+ years of US public opinion data to better understand how gender stereotypes have changed over time

In case you missed it, here is the conference description:

Making advances in diversity is key to an organization's growth and success. However, most efforts to increase diversity and inclusion fail, and some even end up doing more harm than good. That's why we're taking an innovative approach.

By capitalizing on insights from the behavioural sciences, we plan on disrupting the increasingly ineffective interventions for diversity and inclusion in order to develop more sustainable solutions backed by the latest scientific breakthroughs and insights.


Roots of (In)Equality: Insights from Child Psychology and Education

Panel Discussion: Jeewan Chanicka(Superintendent Equity, Anti-Racism & Anti-Oppression, Toronto District School Board), Andrei Cimpian, (Associate Professor, Psychology, New York University), Christia Spears Brown, (Professor, Developmental Psychology, University of Kentucky)

Moderator: Nam Kiwanuka, (Host, The Agenda in the Summer, TVO)


Girls are underreporting sexual harassment or sexual assault. Their response is to “smile and not let it get to them”, and because of this, they internalize a lot of negative symptoms. It’s always along the lines of “Girls don’t want to rock the boat, they’ve been taught to be passive about these issues.”

We see this even today, when looking at the message being sent by the Kavanaugh trial is to not report it or you will get penalized for it. It also sends the message that You reporting it won’t lead to repercussions for the attacker.

On the other side of it, many boys want to be allies but there is so much gender policing if they do stand up to support girls.

Question: What is the TDSB doing to support these types of conversations?

The TDSB is having these conversations with teachers first to help them have conversations with students.

“The equity goal for our schools must be about the adult learning that is required to teach children about these topics.” - Jeewan Chanicka

A big part of this is understanding how to frame these conversations. When we talk about boys vs girls, trans and non-binary children are being harmed in these conversations even though they are well meaning.

Here are a few more great quotes from Chanicka: 

“There is no such thing as a homogenous space, there are invisible layers to diversity.”

“Equity needs to be spoken about as a leadership competencies and in the hiring process. The lived experiences of a person are an asset to your company.”

“It is often left to the oppressed people to do the work (convince people about the oppression, be nice about talking to them about oppression, and then provide a solution for oppression once others are made aware of it)”


With MeToo and TimesUp movements, what impact does the female future movement have on boys?

Spears-Brown said, “We need to emphasize to boys that qualities like kindness and thoughtfulness are sought after qualities. How do boys lean in to being empathetic, being an ally, or being helpful if they get bullied for doing so?”

How do you address bias in education? Especially with teachers?

Chanicka spoke to this, saying: to address bias, we need to have conversations about privilege. When you do this, many people get their backs up and say “I worked hard for everything I had”. 

When having these conversations use this approach: Privileges does not make you a bad person or mean that you didn’t work hard. It is about acknowledging that when making decisions, there are things I don’t need to consider because of my identity

When we at the TDSB looked at our suspension rates in comparison to our student population we saw a big issue. 12% of the students in the board were black, but 50% of the suspensions were black. This isn’t a coincidence, so we are looking into the biases of this process and how to fi those.

Good leadership is about naming that the gap exists. Even if we don’t know the solution, when we name it, it allows us to do something about it. The knowledge and resources exist to create change.

Chanicka also spoke on MeToo briefly, saying there were a few problems that came up. Many WoC’s voices weren’t being heard/supported in this movement and so we need to be mindful of intersectionality when having these conversations.

AUDIENCE QUESTIONS:

How do we change patterns of behaviours for boys to support and encourage male allies?

  • We need to be explicit about the fact the boys need to be the ones to change.

  • Help boys recognize what is harmful behaviour. Help them understand the damage that some of these behaviours have on others. “What happens when we use homophobic language in school?”

    • Young boys often use these homophobic slurs as part of their common language to insult other boys. It enforces this idea that as an LGBTQ+ identified person, your identity is an insult. 

  • The most successful intervention programs have been about giving kids an understanding of the history of racism. You can’t just give them facts, you need to explain the background and give them a conceptual framework to understand where these differences come from. 

Can you talk to the growing evidence that is showing D&I training is actually causing increasing intolerance and tribalism in people?

  • If we only focus on “we should value difference”, we need to explain the differences and why that matters. Otherwise it just makes people feel more “other” and pushes them apart. We should supplement this with messages of explaining the differences and why they are valuable.

  • When you think about these strategies, they’ve been constructed with people who have the best solutions. We then end up objectifying groups of people. We need to be cautious of coming in with the best solution without first consulting the communities while building these solutions. We need to have all these people at the table when building these solutions.

What are your thoughts on hiring quotas to offset systemic bias? Does it help or hurt underrepresented groups?

  • Think about people’s life experiences as a skill. Not hiring for the body that someone lives in, but rather how their experience adds value to the organization


Beyond the Hashtag: Moving Toward Real Change

Panel Discussion:

Dolly Chugh, (Associate Professor, Management and Organizations, New York University), Katy Milkman, (Evan C Thompson Endowed Term Chair for Excellence in Teaching and Associate Professor, Operations, Information and Decisions, University of Pennsylvania), Eric Singler, (General Manager of BVA, Global CEO BVA Nudge Unit, & PRS IN VIVO Managing Director)

Moderator: Maydianne Andrade, (Vice-Dean Faculty Affairs & Equity, Canada Research Chair, University of Toronto Scarborough)

When you talk about diversity and the need for change. You start with the data. When showing this data, we see a glacially slow change over time and in some places, even regression. When people see this data it generally leads to feelings of horror or disappointment, and eventually outrage.

The challenge with outrage is that it often doesn’t lead to action though. Social media campaigns are not enough. Being outraged isn’t enough. We have to go and do work. We need to understand how bias works and leverage our academic understanding of changing behaviours to create a systemic change.

Chugh’s opening statement

When we study the psychology of people, research is clear that most of us care about our moral identity. We want to be a good person and be seen as a good person.

We need to think critically about this though. What is the attachment we have to this identity of being a good person? Is it holding us back from being a better person? 

When having conversations about D&I it forces things into a tight corner, for example “you’re either racist or not. You’re either a sexist or not. etc…” When these topics become binary labels, we just cling to the belief that we are a good person and struggle to make changes to our behaviour.

We should let go of the attachment of being good people, but rather focus on being “goodish” people. This means we are okay to make mistakes and we focus on learning from them. We get better at noticing it ourselves and not getting called out about it

We should treat issues of D&I as other aspects of our lives where we try to learn in order to improve.

Milkman’s opening statement

She studied the actions of the boards of directors of publicly held companies in the US. Looking at the overall numbers, we found an interesting statistic.

There is an enormous underrepresentation of boards with no women. What happens, is that there is a huge over-representation of boards with only 2 women. The takeaway here is that boards aim to hit the social norm of two women and then stop paying attention.

So she raises the question, “Why do we focus on not looking bad?”

Singler’s opening statement

A year and a half ago he got contacted by “he for she”, they wanted to know more about the theory of nudging and behavioural science. With his consulting, the goal is to promote behavioural science.

For example: How can you apply nudging to increasing donations, increasing reporting of sexual harassment, etc…

He wants to make more positive change in the world through behavioural change.

Question, how do we move beyond a checkmark box?

Singler spoke to the goal of HeForShe, which is to have 1 Billion men supporting women. 

For the companies partnered with HeForShe, a solution they use is to play a 30 second video of the company CEO mentioning the importance of being a HeForShe ambassador during the company on boarding process, encouraging their employees to join.

Chugh spoke about “our ordinary privilege”, which is the part of our identity we think the least amount about.

For example, she never has to think about being straight. She can talk about her spouse and not give a second thought to what other people are thinking about their relationship.

Because of this, she is most likely to have blindspots in these areas. Not only is it a blindspot though, this is also where you can have surprising influence.

She looked at the example of if someone makes a racist joke. If a white person steps in they are treated more seriously than if a black person did.

This all comes back to conscious allyship - where can we speak up to help others.

Milkman did some research into unconscious bias training. They worked with an international organization to run a 3,000 person field experiment with this.

They used unconscious bias training as an intervention, getting people to think differently about diversity & inclusion

It tracked behaviours up to 3-4 months after the intervention. Asking questions like who people chose to mentor, who they gave awards to, etc…

Their findings were that the training changed attitudes robustly, but it didn’t move behaviour very much. It only affected the people you’d think would be bought in. (In this case, women and minorities started to seek more help and take advantage of resources more.)

Question: How can you make toolkits to help people take action?

Singler spoke about needing to identify specifically what the desired new behaviour is and then make it as easy as possible to facilitate and encourage this new behaviour. 

“Education is about creating the intention to adopt the behaviour.” - Eric Singler


Milkman spoke about using bias interrupter tools and phrases. One good example was when all the faculty got asked to track the demographics of the speakers they brought in and report them to the dean

Once academic chairs did a review of their speakers and saw the data, they made changes right away

Everyone started to rethink who they invited to speak. 

Additionally, they didn’t know how to talk about bias without looking like they were pointing fingers at racism or sexism. So providing education around this terminology is important.

Chugh mentioned the 20/60/20 rule from Susan Anunzio is really interesting to look at when you think about any cultural change. 20% of employees will be on-board with the change, 20% are never coming with you, and 60% are in the moveable middle (not super engaged, not vocal, etc…).

We should focus our efforts on the 60% in the middle. We need to understand where people are within this. 

Research shows that when people don’t have deeply held views on a topic, they are swayed by stories. 

What’s the line between nudging and manipulation?

Singler mentioned the book: the ethics of influence and broke down a few ways to approach nudging ethically.

  1. Be transparent.

  2. Will the new desired behaviour we want to encourage be good? 

  3. Who is deciding what is a good behaviour? 

  4. What are we doing and why are we doing it? 

It feels like manipulation when nudges are inserted into our lives and there is no intentions made clear. So if we talk about how we’re doing this, the purpose of it, and holding people accountable for it.

What are the most effective behavioural interventions that move beyond just changing minds?


Male is a Gender Too: Bringing Masculinity into the Conversation

Panel Discussion: Humberto Carolo, (Executive Director, White Ribbon), Jamil Jivani, (Visiting Professor, Osgoode Hall Law School; Founder, Citizen Empowerment Project), CJ Pascoe(Associate Professor, Sociology; David M. and Nancy L. Petrone Faculty Scholar, University of Oregon)

Moderator: Nouman Ashraf, (Assistant Professor, Organizational Behaviour and Human Resource Management, University of Toronto)

Unfortunately my laptop ran out of power, so I’ve summarized this fantastic panel in tweets!


What works: Gender Equality by Design

Speaker: Iris Bohnet, (Roy E. Larsen Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School)

She spoke at the UN this week in NYC and they are looking at Canada as an example for the world to look to.

Bohnet began by discussing unconscious bias, mentioning the Heidi vs Howard case. As described below:

“Heidi Roizen was a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist who became the subject of a case study at Columbia Business School. Professor Frank Flynn, presented half his class with the case study with Heidi’s name on it and gave half the class the same case study with her name changed to “Howard”. The students rated “Howard” and Heidi, equally competent, but they liked Howard, but not Heidi.” - Maria Katsarou

Then bringing up the example of “blind” orchestra auditions and the impact it had on women joining orchestras. ”In the years after these changes were instituted, the percent of female musicians in the five highest-ranked orchestras in the nation increased from 6 percent in 1970 to 21 percent in 1993.”

Moving into current solutions, she spoke to the fact that current unconscious bias/diveristy training methods do not work and that we need to design environments that create behavioural change.

When speaking about promotions, she shared some very interesting findings. The types of biases they’ve identified within promoting people:

  1. Performance support bias: you’re taken under someone’s wing and mentored

  2. Performance reward bias: you’re not given the same opportunities for promotion

  3. Anchors: self-evaluations: the managers are influenced by the self evaluation and some people feel less confident about themselves

To mitigate this, they created a gender promotion ratio, comparing the hiring of men and women in relation to the available pools of each within the company.

When looking for ways to create a more inclusive culture, an approach she uses in her consulting is to:

  1. Write down peoples experiences (micro aggressions)

  2. What is the positive side of this? What does a good meeting look like?

  3. How can we translate this into organizational behaviours

An example she mentioned was for meetings. They put a red flag inside meetings and when there was a transgression, you would raise that flag. This made interventions easier and less intimidating while also bringing humour to the meeting.

How does the concern with potential backlash shape or limit diversity and inclusion interventions, as in diversity training?

She hasn’t seen any backlash on the behavioural change interventions she is pushing because people can’t argue about taking bias out of a system. The one exception she can think of is that the previously privileged groups may not be supportive of removing some of these biases.

Regarding unconscious bias training, she mentioned Michela Carlana’s research. Which revolved around unconscious bias training for teachers in Italy. She found that it had an immediate impact on the teachers. 

Interestingly, they found differential effects based on the people’s political affiliation, she found that for the right wing people had backlash, whereas the left wing people responded very positively.


Gender Stereotypes as Cause and Consequence of the Domestic and Occupational Division of Labor

Speaker: Alice Eagly, (Professor, Psychology and Management and Organizations, Northwestern University)

Gender stereotypes frame our social interaction, they’re the context of everything we do.

“If your stereotype is inconsistent with the role you’re in, it creates challenges for you.” For example, look at women in leadership or STEM or men as kindergarten teachers, people often approach them with incorrect assumptions.

When specifically looking at leader role stereotypes it creates a double bind: women are expected to be nice, but also that they need to be tough to be a leader.

“Leadership is more like a labyrinth for women than it is for men”

There are also intersectionality effects on these stereotypes, specifically leading to more challenges for black women.

Alice looked into public opinion data to understand people’s changes in opinion of gender stereotypes over time. They found 16 nationally representative polls going back to 1946 and classified all the different traits into three main categories:

  1. Communion (friendly, unselfish, and expressive)

  2. Agency (assertive, aggressive, competitive, takes charge)

  3. Competency 

The study found that gender stereotypes have changed over time in these ways:

  1. Communion has gradually become much more female associated over time

  2. Agency has gotten more male associated over time, but not very significantly

  3. Competency has switched from more male associated to now more female associated

They then checked their research to asnwer the question “Could these changes be due to political correctness?”

They looked at psychologists’ assessment of trait likability to the stereotype items. It was found that this was not true and that these changes were not due to political correctness.

People learn about groups from everyday life and form stereotypes about people’s identities. Stereotypes then take on a “life of their own” by supporting inequality and segregation. This leads to both social and self regulation based on these stereotypes.

With this, we can find patterns of occupational sex segregation such as:

  1. Vertical: concentration of men in the most powerful and high-paying position

  2. Horizontal: concentration of women and men occupations favouring different psychological and physical traits

    1. Men in jobs favouring: physical strength, analytical, mathematical, etc…

    2. Women in jobs favouring: working with people and in social support roles

What drives these current stereotypes?

  1. Agency: traits like competitiveness, robustness, strength is generally associated with leadership roles

  2. Communion: women in occupations favouring social skills and contributions

  3. Competence: women’s rise in education and employment (into jobs with prestige and cognitive demands are the same as men’s)

What are avenues for increasing gender diversity in leadership, given current stereotypes?

She brought up two strategies. 1. Address women’s stereotypic agency deficit and 2. Change how organizations value agency

  1. This approach is along the lines of the Lean In movement, encouraging women to adopt more agency in their leadership style. Eagly addressed the reaction that has come from the feminist communities about this approach, stating that because of how stereotypes and leadership are currently viewed, women need to speak up and be seen in more agentic roles. 

  2. The second solution was more long term, focusing on how we can change the world around us to place less of a priority on agency-oriented leadership. To do so, groups and organizations should become less hierarchical and foster cooperative relations as well as democratic and collaborative leadership styles.


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Crescendo is a diversity education tool. It sends employees short videos and tips inside of Slack to help them be more empathetic, while also providing leadership with insight into the changes in workplace behaviour.