Beyond “leaning in”

Taking the burden off individuals to make the workplace more diverse and inclusive

Systemic issues don’t always require complex solutions. Sometimes a small tweak to how processes are run or decisions are made can have significant results. As Canada Research Chair in Identity, Diversity and Inclusion, Sonia Kang uses behavioural insights and organizational design to disrupt the systems and structures that block inclusion in the workplace—with an aim to level the playing field for women when it comes to career advancement.

“Inequity in the workplace is a systemic problem, but we’ve traditionally focused on changing individuals’ behaviours as a way of fixing it,” says Kang, an associate professor in the Department of Management at the University of Toronto Mississauga and the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “That’s why we see so much money spent on unconscious bias training and ‘lean in’ workshops. We’re done with that. Systemic problems require systemic solutions.”

Framing choices differently to promote career opportunities

For Kang, inclusion is about making sure people from all backgrounds feel they belong and are valued—and have equal access to opportunities. To boost inclusion in the workplace, she and her research team (including former doctoral student Joyce He) have been exploring ways to increase women’s participation in an area traditionally dominated by men: competitions for promotions.

Canada Research Chair Sonia Kang recording her podcast, For the Love of Work.

Photo: Elisa Barbaro

Applying for a promotion is typically an “opt-in” choice: those who don’t actively apply aren’t considered. Previous research has shown that women are less likely to enter competitions or self-promote, so Kang’s team wasn’t surprised when 75% of the men in their research program enrolled in a competitive tournament involving timed math tasks compared to 47% of the women.

Kang and her team wondered if that would shift if the competition was an “opt-out” choice instead, with all of the research participants entered automatically unless they chose otherwise. And it did. In the opt-out model, the gender gap was eliminated: 75% of both men and women chose to participate in the tournament.

Kang believes this approach could easily be applied to a workplace setting to improve organizational diversity and inclusion, making it easier for women to access career opportunities and move up into management positions.

“We didn’t tell the women to speak up or lean in. We simply changed the context of the decision being made,” says Kang. “We’re taking the onus off individuals to solve the problem on their own.”

Language matters

Another example of a small change solving a big challenge comes from a collaboration between Kang’s research team and a company that was struggling to recruit women for an entry-level sales position. Each time the firm posted the job, the vast majority of applicants were men.

Instead of adjusting the role itself, the team experimented with a shift in the words used in the advertisement to describe it. That included making the language more neutral, with fewer “masculine” words and phrases emphasizing concepts such as dominance. They were confident this would increase the number of female applicants for the position—and it did. What they didn’t expect was that it boosted the number of male applicants as well, with some men saying they found the new language much more appealing.

Applications beyond the workplace

Kang hopes her research will have an impact not just in workplaces across Canada but in other areas, too. The Rotman School of Management has already applied an opt-out framework to the selection process for its research excellence award, resulting in a more diverse group of winners. In theory, the same approach could also be used to improve gender diversity among university scholarship recipients.

“It’s a myth that a system-level solution has to involve big policy changes,” she says. “It can be any small change you make to the way choices are made. And a series of small fixes in lots of different places can come together to have a much larger effect.”

Want to learn more?

To learn more about Kang’s work, visit her website, check out the resources available through the Engendering Success in STEM research consortium or listen to her podcast, For the Love of Work.