Behavioural science could boost gender equality, says OECD

By on 17/03/2019 | Updated on 21/09/2023
Global Government Forum’s Women Leaders Index 2017

A ‘behavioural insights’ approach to promoting gender equality in public services could help overcome the shortcomings of targets and regulatory approaches, according to a report by the OECD.

The organisation has released a report tracking progress on its 2015 Recommendation on Gender Equality in Public Life, which aims to help governments provide better access to public leadership for women. In the report, the OECD notes that “there is a temptation, and a tendency, to legislate solutions in the public service to advance changes consistent with stated gender equality goals.

“However, this may not always be effective in changing behaviours, as the persistent gaps between rules – many of which were enacted years if not decades ago – and outcomes suggest.” New and innovative approaches are required, it argues – highlighting the use of ‘behavioural insights’ techniques built around human psychology.

Slow progress

While women comprise 58% of all public sector employees in the OECD, the report finds, the proportion in top management positions is only rising slowly – from 29% in 2010 to 33% in 2016.
“Women are well represented in the central government public service across OECD countries; however, they are over-represented in lower job categories and part-time work,” it says.

The report says the limited impacts of regulatory approaches to promoting gender equality may be down to “shortcomings in appropriately addressing social norms”. Behavioural insights can help here, it says, by grounding reforms and interventions in a “good understanding of the beliefs and associations that everyone has, that are unconscious and automatic.

“For example, one may say that one does not think that women should do most of the childcare, but implicit bias may reveal this assumption exists.”

Changing expectations

As an example of the behavioural problems that can hamper gender equality, the report cites research showing that requests by women to work flexibly in organisations dominated by men “may strengthen the perception that women are responsible for care and family, and may encourage managers to think of female employees primarily as mothers rather than as potential managers and leaders”.

Evidence from the UK shows that almost two in five women did not even request to work flexibly due to fear of negative consequences, the report notes, adding:
“The solution could be making flexible work more common among both men and women, and at senior levels of the organisation, as the observed absence of flex work at senior levels can discourage women from applying for promotions.”

The study also urges governments to make better use of the statistics they collect on gender equality, saying that “lessons learnt from behavioural insights suggest that data and transparency can change behaviour”.

Using the data

The report also explores a UK case study in which the Behavioural Insights Team – a Cabinet Office team now floated as a consultancy – used behavioural science to help remove bias in the recruitment process. The methods adopted included gendered language detection, readability scorings on job descriptions, bias-free review process, and providing real-time diversity data and analytics.

In Australia, though, results for blind-hiring were mixed.
The practice reportedly boosted the share of female senior executives in the Australian Bureau of Statistics from 21% to 43%.
However, a randomised trial across the Australian Public Service found that “de-identifying applications at the shortlisting stage of recruitment does not appear to assist in promoting diversity in hiring”.

Elsewhere, the report says that public procurement is a powerful tool to help advance gender equality goals across society. It cites a number of approaches, including a Swiss law requiring pay equality for companies awarded government contracts. A number of other countries have implemented measures to set aside a proportion of contracts for women-owned businesses, including the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Israel, Korea, South Africa and the United States.

Global Government Forum publishes a Women Leaders Index, tracking the proportion of senior civil servants who are female across G20 and EU nations. To explore the results and analysis of our 2016-17 index, visit our dedicated data tool.

About Colin Marrs

Colin is a journalist and editor with long experience in the government and built environment sectors. He cut his teeth in local newspaper journalism before moving to Inside Housing in 1999. He has worked in a variety of roles for built environment titles including Planning, Regeneration & Renewal and Property Week. After a spell at advertising industry bible Campaign magazine, he became a freelancer in 2010. Since then he has edited, local government finance publication and contributed news and features to Civil Service World, Architects’ Journal, Social Housing, management titles and written white papers for major corporate and public sector clients.

One Comment

  1. MH says:

    Thanks for this article. Could you please provide the reference information on the OECD report you mentioned in this article?


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