When it comes to creating gender-equitable workplaces, solutions have typically focused on what employees and employers can do to change their attitudes. But a recent study by the nonprofit advocacy group, Time’s Up, shows that behavioral design — leveraging human psychology to influence people’s choices and habits — can be used to help create fairer treatment of women and men at work.
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“A lot of the work that we do has tended to be in the realm of attitude change [and] unconscious bias training, trying to change people's perceptions of how they are evaluating women and men in the workplace, and it clearly has been insufficient for so long,” Tina Tchen, the CEO of Time’s Up, told NBC News’ Know Your Value.
Alongside the nonprofit behavioral design firm ideas42, the Time’s Up Foundation released the report and outlined the tools employers can use to shift the onus from the "ideal worker" to the "ideal workplace." The report also detailed how behavioral design strategies can be used to address other longstanding issues that have hampered women’s advancement at work, including the gender pay gap and caregiving responsibilities.
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“For a very long time, it's been documented [how] work in this country is organized around the features of an ‘ideal worker,’ meaning someone who basically can sacrifice all of their time, their attention, their devotion to you in the job, and that typically is what a man can do.” Tchen said. “Those are characteristics of the way men are able to deal with their lives because historically, someone else has been at home taking care of the other parts of your life — you know, your children, your parents [and] whatever else you need,” Tchen said.
She continued, “Women do not fit the ideal worker paradigm as easily, and that has led to a whole set of things like not having flexible scheduling, not having caregiving values in the workplace, [and] that puts women at a disadvantage.”
Tchen pointed out how commonplace rigid scheduling is tied to an expectation that employees can constantly be available to their employers. In addition, availability is linked to a perceived attitude of putting the company first. Instead, the report describes an ideal workplace as one that understands that all of its employees have responsibilities outside the home, and one that values those experiences.
In the report, the groups propose three areas that are ripe for improvement via behavioral design changes, including the process of hiring and recruitment, expectations around scheduling and work, and how companies determine promotions. The report gives tips for employers to rethink their approach to each area, for example, by defining processes around hiring candidates, handling their pay negotiations and determining their paid leave.
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“Instead of having sort of like an open-ended, ‘come to me when you know you might have a life change or you need family leave, and we'll talk about how much time you need,’ set a default,” Tchen said. “[Say], if you’re pregnant, our expectation is that you’re going to take 12 weeks, man or woman, and that's the default.”
The health and economic crises brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic have compounded the longstanding hurdles women face in pursuit of equity at work, including a persistent gender pay gap and insufficient paid leave.
Over the past year, women have left the workforce in record numbers. They are taking on a disproportionate share of child- and eldercare responsibilities compared to men, and they have suffered far more job losses in this recession than men have. That’s partially due to severe cutbacks in women-majority industries like service and hospitality, which have been stifled amid stay-at-home orders. Altogether, more than two-and-a-half million women have left the workforce, and womens’ unemployment has chronically remained higher than mens’. Among women of color, the unemployment rate is even worse.
“Even still, in this so-called ‘recovery period,’ women are permanently leaving the workforce because they can't manage the caregiving responsibilities at home with work,” Tchen said. “So as a result, women's labor force participation is at its lowest level since the 1980s. So, we have effectively wiped out decades of work on increasing women in the workforce in the last year.” She sees her group’s research as a foundational part of the effort to rebuild the economy at this critical moment.
“Not only is there an opportunity there as we’re rebuilding the economy, but if we don't, we will not successfully recover as an overall economy,” Tchen said. “By keeping women out of the workforce, you are losing trillions of dollars of GDP. But we will also have an increase in income inequality and gender inequality and racial inequality in the country if we don't build these basic infrastructures that all workers need to succeed in the workforce.”