Out-Designing Bias to Achieve Gender Parity

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By: Rana Nawas

Why has the UK had only two female Prime Ministers, and the US no female President? Why are just 6.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs female? Of course, there are multiple factors at play here, but in my experience as President of Ellevate Dubai and co-Leader of the regional GE Women’s Network, one of the biggest barriers to women rising is unconscious gender bias – in both sexes (we are socialized the same, after all). While unconscious bias can affect one’s behavior towards a gender, race, religion, age group, size group, etc., this article will focus on unconscious gender bias. Men and women are not socialized to believe that women can – or should – become leaders.

What do the studies prove?

A venture capital firm in Silicon Valley recently shared the following study: identical award-winning start-up pitches were presented to investors “blind,” with only the voices changed. 68% of judges chose to fund ventures narrated by a male voice and just 32% of judges opted for those narrated by a female voice. The results were the same, whether the judges were male or female. This is unconscious bias.

While still affecting professional women on a daily basis, unconscious bias is nothing new. It has been recognized as a problem for decades, and the way the business community has tried to tackle it is through “diversity training”. Unfortunately, it turns out that raising your self-awareness does little to change your behavior. In fact, Iris Bohnet, Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, highlights that there is no evidence to prove that diversity training works.

So what works?


In the 1970’s women made up just 10% of orchestras. Then, blind auditions were introduced, where musicians auditioned behind a curtain so that the orchestra directors would not know their gender. What do you think happened? The number of female musicians soared, and today women make up almost 40% of orchestras. There was no behavioral shift here; it was a small but significant process change (blinding the decision-makers) that led to many more women being hired. Imagine the power of bringing such process changes into the workplace…

Focus areas for change

Unconscious bias creeps into every corporate process: recruitment, performance evaluation/ promotion, and pay.

1) Recruitment

Job descriptions can be heavily (if unintentionally) gender-biased. Long job descriptions that list numerous traits of a non-existent “ideal candidate” are much less likely to attract female applicants than concise, skill-based descriptions. This is because men and women perceive the hiring process differently, and women overwhelmingly believe that if they do not have all the listed traits they would not be hired for the role. Men regard the job description as a starting point.

Once the job description generates interest, the resumes are screened. Many studies have shown that the exact same profile is more likely to get an interview if the name on the resume is male rather than female. As a result, it is extremely powerful to blind the resumes, as with orchestras, so that decision-makers are not influenced by demographic information.

2) Performance evaluations

In performance evaluation, self-appraisals should be eliminated altogether. Women consistently under-rate themselves and this works against them because human minds are sub-consciously “anchored.” Therefore, a manager reading a low self-appraisal will inevitably be drawn to revise their grade downwards.

Special care must also be taken in decision-meetings as competent women tend to be pitched as unlikeable; whereas professional men are “allowed” to be competent and likeable at the same time. It is always best to have a diverse team making performance evaluation decisions.

3) Pay

In the US and UK, women earn about 21% less than men. Another sad consequence of being paid less at the outset is that the pay gap tends to grow over time, as hiring managers ask candidates what their last salary was and base their offer on that. Therefore, if you start off on lower pay than your male colleague (e.g. because you did not negotiate as much) the pay gap is perpetuated and exacerbated over time. To help close the gender pay gap, it is now illegal in New York City and the state of Massachusetts to ask an interviewee about their current pay level.

My hypothesis is that the gap in “discretionary pay” (bonus) is far worse. I happen to have a lot of friends in financial services, and am often flabbergasted by their experiences at global tier 1 banks. A friend of mine recently brought in the highest income for her wealth-management department – but the boss gave her male colleague a higher bonus. When pressed, his answer was: “He has a family and kids to look after… you have nobody – what are you going to do with the money?!” The “fatherhood premium” and “motherhood penalty” merit their own article.

Finally, I believe it is important to have these conversations within one’s friend and family circles. We need to recruit male and female ambassadors to support gender parity, and educating them is the first step. There is a wealth of fantastic research sure to shock your family and friends. I strongly recommend Prof Iris Bohnet’s excellent book “What Works,” nominated by the Financial Times as a best business book of 2016 – it makes a great gift!

Where does this leave you?

A reliable and necessary step forward is to circumvent – or out-design – the blockers to achieving parity. In the case of unconscious gender bias in the corporate world, that means pulling subjectivity out of everyday processes that we know are highly flawed. If you had to make one change in your organization, what would it be?


Rana Nawas is the Senior Vice President Sales and Marketing for GE Capital Aviation Services. She thrives on diversity, novelty, developing new relationships, pioneering new markets, working in different industries and learning new skills.

Ellevate Network is a global women’s network: the essential resource for professional women who create, inspire and lead. Together, we #InvestInWomen.