On January 6th the actor and activist Emma Watson tweeted her desire to start a feminist book club.
Hi Team, ❤️ I want to start a feminist book club but so far have only brainstormed ‘Feminist Book Club’ and ‘Emma Watson Book Club’.— Emma Watson (@EmWatson) January 6, 2016
As part of my work with UN Women, I have started reading as many books and essays about equality as I can get my hands on. There is so much amazing stuff out there! Funny, inspiring, sad, thought-provoking, empowering! I’ve been discovering so much that, at times, I’ve felt like my head was about to explode… I decided to start a Feminist book club, as I want to share what I’m learning and hear your thoughts too.
The plan is to select and read a book every month, then discuss the work during the month’s last week (to give everyone time to read it!). I will post some questions/quotes to get things started, but I would love for this to grow into an open discussion with and between you all. Whenever possible I hope to have the author, or another prominent voice on the subject, join the conversation.
If you fancy it, please join up and participate. Everyone is welcome. I would be honoured!
The page for the group, which is already approaching 100,000 members, also hosts an active discussion board, where tens of thousands of people have suggested books to turn to next. Here at HUP we’re soon to publish a title we hope they’ll consider.
What Works: Gender Equality by Design, is by Iris Bohnet, a behavioral economist and Director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program. As research has repeatedly shown, and as resources like Project Implicit help to demonstrate, humans have biases related to characteristic like race, gender, and sexual orientation that the best of training and the purest of intentions can’t easily override. With What Works, Bohnet presents a relentlessly practical but determinedly optimistic guide to straightforward behavioral interventions that overcome gender bias by limiting opportunities for its intrusion.
Bohnet often introduces the notion of designing for gender equality by pointing to the simple but illustrative case of orchestras. From the book:
As late as 1970, only 5 percent of musicians performing in the top five orchestras in the United States were women. Today, women compose more than 35 percent of the most acclaimed orchestras, and they play great music. This did not happen by chance. Rather, it required the introduction of blind auditions. The Boston Symphony Orchestra was the first to ask musicians to audition behind a screen, and in the 1970s and 1980s most other major orchestras followed suit. When they did so, usually in preliminary rounds, it raised the likelihood that a female musician would advance by 50 percent and substantially increased the proportion of women hired.
Addressing the disparity, as Bohnet writes, required only “awareness, a curtain, and a decision. Or, more precisely, a design decision.” The blind assessment practiced by orchestras isn’t always feasible, but the approach—a focus on de-biasing systems rather than people—is an enormously useful tool for moving the needle towards equality.
What’s critical to recognize in the orchestra example is that the result isn’t just more female musicians: it’s also better music. Even if the gatekeepers and string-pullers of the world can’t be made to prioritize gender equality, rare are those who’d ignore proven strategies for improved performance. And yet, even as Bohnet emphasizes the business benefits of designing around biases, those gains cannot be the foundation for the changes we need:
While the macro- and the micro-evidence hold the promise of a business case, gender equality is not a magic bullet automatically leading to economic progress. This is why, at the end of the day, the case of gender equality must rest on a moral argument. It just is the right thing to do. Full stop. We cannot afford to get it wrong.
Certainly wonkier than a Gloria Steinem memoir, but What Works explains how, using behavioral insights, we can collapse gender inequality within our lifetime. A fitting book for Our Shared Shelf.