Design Thinking Effective In Fighting Gender Bias

According to a new paper by Sally D’Amato, Alexa Frank, Kelly Conners and Michelle Cho, Deloitte Consulting, published in the Wall Street Journal, design thinking’s human-centered approach can help organizations reduce implicit biases that affect the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women.



The report notes that, in the 1970s, only a very small percentage of musicians in top U.S. professional orchestras were female. Today, women hold more than 50% of the chairs in America’s 250 top orchestras, which many behavioral economists attribute to a simple design choice: blind auditions.

The lessons from this example, says the report, are directly applicable to the workplace. First, although progress has been made in combating deliberate gender discrimination at work, some women still face implicit biases. And second, says the report, simple strategic changes in the way a situation is designed can mitigate implicit bias in the workplace.

Design thinking, a creative, collaborative, and iterative approach to solving problems, says the report, is grounded in employing the experiences and perspectives of real people to help create a solution. It can help business leaders, including CMOs, understand what facets of their culture and decision-making practices may be driving biased outcomes 

Designing EqualityIn redesigning facets of the work environment that may be creating barriers for women, organizations can apply the five stages of design thinking:

  • Explore.The organization conducts exploratory research, using methods such as interviews, focus groups, observation, and data analytics, to unearth new insights about women employees, their experiences, and the possible biases that affect their journeys.
  • Identify.A team that includes women employees with diverse perspectives works to draw on exploratory research and identify drivers of gender bias, seeking to understand the unique challenges women may face in recruitment, retention, and advancement, says the report.
  • Ideate.The team brainstorms ways to address the identified challenges and collectively develops a set of solutions.
  • Test.Solutions are prototyped and tested through pilot programs with iterative employee feedback and participation.
  • Evaluate.The team collects gender-disaggregated data and feedback from employees to assess whether the solutions are mitigating bias and improving women’s advancement and experience. 

Addressing Barriers  Design thinking possesses several characteristics that make it well-suited for untangling a complex problem of this nature, says the report. While the application of design thinking to the problem of implicit gender bias is still a novel concept, companies can use this approach to mitigate obstacles in three critical areas of women’s advancement:

Hiring. Research, says the report, shows that certain hiring practices, such as unstructured interviews or gendered job descriptions, can lead to unequal employment of women. Companies can take steps such as conducting surveys and interactive focus groups analyzing interview and hiring data to determine whether there are meaningful gender differences in candidate evaluation and selection.

  • Retention  If internal research suggests implicit bias is a potential factor in women leaving the organization, interviews or persona-driven exercises with women can help elucidate the underlying drivers of attrition. User-centered research techniques such as journey mapping or interactive focus groups can also help identify why women may be leaving. Solutions to test could include conducting joint evaluations, creating objective and measurable performance standards, and raising awareness about biased feedback.
  • Leadership  If organizational leaders see low representation of women among managers or executives, some might attribute this disparity to women’s personal choices. The exploratory stages of design thinking can enable organizations to test these assumptions and change the work environment accordingly, rather than blindly guessing the source of the problem and applying a blanket solution, says the report.

Concluding, the report suggests that a design thinking approach customizable to each individual organization, its people, its resources, and its needs can help companies better understand how implicit biases affect women’s work experiences and aid in the development of effective ways to counter them. This approach can be a powerful tool for addressing previously hidden obstacles to women’s recruitment, retention, and advancement, driving the growth of an inclusive workplace culture that empowers all employees.

Written by Sally D’Amato, principal; Alexa Frank, consultant; Kelly Connors, senior consultant; and Michelle Cho, consultant, Deloitte Consulting LLP

Editor’s note: The article was created in conjunction with the Deloitte Women’s Initiative, a program that provides leadership opportunities for rising women professionals. The publication contains general information only and Deloitte is not, by means of this publication, rendering accounting, business, financial, investment, legal, tax, or other professional advice or services. The publication is not a substitute for such professional advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business, says the article.


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