Summary of What Works

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What Works book summary

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  • Analytical
  • Overview
  • Concrete Examples


Harvard professor Iris Bohnet seeks to determine “what works” when it comes to increasing gender equality. In that pursuit, she offers a focused, meticulous review of efforts to change human behavior to foster inclusion and ethical practice. Bohnet analyzes surveys, lab studies, corporate actions, meta studies and the law from a broad array of disciplines: politics, business, social science, gender studies, and more. The result can be overwhelming, but her prose is always engaging and useful. The author is exceptionally honest. She flatly states how ineffective certain well-intended programs have been. This clarifies her ethical commitment and makes her conclusions more persuasive. getAbstract recommends Bohnet’s insight to anyone interested in clear thinking, social science and a more inclusive society.

About the Author

A native of Switzerland, Iris Bohnet, PhD, is a behavioral economist at Harvard University. She is a professor, the director of the Women and Public Policy Program, and co-chair of the Behavioral Insights Group at the Kennedy School of Government.


Why “Behavioral Design”

In 1970, only 5% of the performers in the five best American orchestras were female. Now more than 35% are. This didn’t happen by accident. Following the lead of the Boston Symphony, orchestras shifted to blind auditions, wherein judges hear musicians play but don’t see them. Directors always believed they cared only about a musician’s skill. “Unconscious” bias led them to select a majority of men. When they auditioned musicians behind a screen, they chose differently.

Increased gender equality would benefit society. For instance, equality expands the talent pool: Consider how many fine musicians weren’t hired before the advent of blind auditions. When societies exclude women from the workforce, per capita income drops 40%. Yet, some efforts to increase diversity have failed or have had negative effects. Seeing what works requires experimentation.

Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias is omnipresent and hard to unlearn; it distorts people’s thinking and their perceptions. People expect different things from men and from women in the workplace.

But as employees struggle to put biases aside, behavioral...

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