"Stop talking about gender equality if you want gender equality in your organization." The silence among the hundreds of participants at the UN's Women Empowerment Principles 2012 event was palpable. Why would the first speaker open with such a provocative statement?

The statement came from a global head of inclusion and diversity at a multinational company. That person was me. It was not intended as a provocation – it was instead meant to be a call for a new approach in our work for gender equality. And we certainly need one: the Forum's latest Global Gender Gap Report shows how far we have to go in achieving gender parity in the workplace.

Changing the discourse

The point was and still is that gender equality is stuck in the wrong discourse. According to French philosopher Michel Foucault, discourse is "the system of thoughts composed of ideas, attitudes, courses of action, beliefs and practices that systematically construct the subjects and the worlds of which they speak".

In other words, a discourse is a social construction of reality through the words we use and the actions we take. All words have connotations and associations that create perceptions, meaning and behaviour.

The discourse dominating the current discussions and work on gender equality in organizations is too often dominated by a moral rationality, which contains a variety of hidden barriers. The word "gender" connotes "women", "empowerment" suggests "fixing the women" or "helping the women", and "gender equality" implies "nice to have". One of the major challenges in achieving workplace gender equality is that it is wrongly perceived as "fixing the women". What we need to do instead is “fix” the culture and systems, and make them more inclusive.

Unfortunately, the way we talk about gender equality in our organizations and the initiatives and programmes we implement – such as data and targets that only focus on women, women’s mentorship programmes and quotas for women on boards – sustains and feeds the wrong discourse.

We need to shift the discourse of gender equality to one dominated by a business rationale where gender means "all gender and all of us", where empowerment connotes "release of potential", and where gender equality and diversity is perceived as a means to engagement, better performance and innovation – not a nice to have, but an absolutely must-have.

We cannot do that by talking to the rational mind. Instead, we have to design inclusive behaviour – and we have to take this very seriously, because at the moment, we are talking to the wrong system of the brain and we are speaking the wrong language.

Lost in transition

By the "wrong" system of the brain, I mean the conscious system of the brain that rationally understands the need for gender equality and inclusion of diverse perspectives in decision-making. But that is not the brain system “doing” our behaviour. Understanding the need is not enough to do something about it.

According to Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist, the human mind has two systems: System 1 (unconscious) and System 2 (conscious). System 1 dominates about 90% of our behaviour and decision-making, and this system is instinctive, irrational, emotional, associative and biased.

The importance of understanding why this distinction is crucial to achieving gender equality is more obvious when using the brain analogy used by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who pictures the brain as an elephant and its rider – the elephant is System 1 and the rider is System 2. The rider can guide our behaviour and help achieve gender equality by rationally understanding the business case, but it cannot force a six ton-heavy elephant to behave inclusively if it is not motivated to do so.

Rational arguments and data appeal to the rider, but not to the elephant who ultimately determines the behaviour. We cannot rely on rational understanding to achieve gender equality. Making the elephant behave inclusively is a completely different ballgame.

Good intentions only get us so far

Many leaders and employees express their motivation, commitment and engagement in promoting gender equality. That's in itself is progress. But the reality is that we're still not seeing the equivalent behavioural changes. When I meet with peers responsible for an organization's inclusion and diversity work, most of them say that even when they see changes, there is often a relapse. It doesn't stick.

One of the hidden barriers is that System 1 (the elephant) has not evolved. This reptilian brain is operating in tribe mode, making us feel safe when we're around people who are like us – “similar others” – and sceptical of those who are not – “the others". When we talk about and make a rational case for behavioural change to achieve gender parity in our organizations and societies, not only are we talking to the wrong brain system, we're also speaking the wrong language for the elephant.

The current discourse often contains an implicit sense of blaming, shaming and finger pointing, alienating men and the privileged, including other women who have succeeded. This is – unconsciously – triggering fear, shame and loss of power: exactly the emotions we should avoid triggering if we really want to achieve gender equality. According to shame researcher Brene Brown, some of the psychological strategies used to handle these emotions include putting others down, excluding, attacking or expressing feelings of disdain.

So if we want to close the gap between good intentions and actual behaviour when it comes to gender equality at work, and if we want to avoid a loss of action in transition from gender discussions, we should focus on triggering the right feelings, altering perceptions and designing interventions to make it simple for the elephant to act inclusively.

A three-step guide

Training in unconscious bias awareness is becoming more common. And yet I still hear many peers in organizations speak of their frustration when they don't see the expected behavioural change from this training. I believe it is because this type of training all too often increases conscious awareness of bias in the System 2 part of our brains rather than changing motivation and behaviour in the System 1 brain. Studies have been done that support this conclusion.

Since 2011, I've been applying behavioural insights from anthropology, behavioural economics, psychology and neuroscience to this issue. I've found three ways to make it easy for people to act inclusively without “talking” to their rational mind and relying on rational understanding to do the work. I later teamed up with Lisa Kepinski, who also works in this field, and we merged our approaches and called these behavioural techniques "inclusion nudges": ways of prodding the unconscious mind to act in a predictable way.

1. “Feel the need” inclusion nudges

Motivate people by creating a “feel the need” intervention (as opposed to rationally understanding the need).

One of the many ways to do this is by making the gap between self-perception/intention and actual (biased) behaviour visible. For example, make identical CVs with different pictures, names and gender, and then have managers rate them. With this exercise, people are often quite shocked when they find out the skills are identical and that their rating was influenced more by the gender, name or appearance, than the candidate’s competences and performance. “Seeing” their unconsciously biased behaviour in real decision-making versus their intentions to select the best qualified candidate motivates System 1 of our brains to change behaviour to be more inclusive.

2. “Process” inclusion nudges


Integrate small interventions in the already existing organizational processes (e.g. recruitment, performance calibration, customer service, procurement).

One of the many ways of doing this is to change the default settings, so that we have to opt out instead of opt in. For example, in successor planning, some organizations make their default "Everyone is ready now" and argue "why is this candidate not ready?" This is a minor change but significantly different to the current default position, which starts with the question "Who is ready?" and the only thing discussed is why those particular candidates might be ready – which risks focusing on the “similar others” and overlooking suitable candidates and “the others”. Such a small change can stop you from only selecting people who are like you – and mitigate bias.

3. “Framing” inclusion nudges


Reframe the discourse by changing the norms, the words, the perceptions, and by priming the unconscious mind with specific meanings that promote inclusive behaviour.

One of the many ways to do this is to flip the numbers. For example, get rid of targets like 30% women in leadership. Instead, use a target of a high-performing team composed of a maximum 70% of team members of the same gender, the same generation, the same nationality and the same education, as we did in the multinational where I worked. Or expose people in your workplace to pictures of people that challenge the stereotype about men as leaders and women as caretakers. What we see is what we believe.

We've tried this approach with organizations around the world. It makes inclusive behaviour stick. These practical interventions mitigate unconscious bias and create inclusive organizations by changing behaviour, culture and systems.

Fast forward from the UN statement in 2012 to 2016, and we have joined forces with peers around the world and together created a global movement for sharing inclusion nudges to make progress with pace. Will you join us?