Diversity and Inclusion
Unconscious Bias
Work and Organizations

The promise of “small wins” — a change model to achieve gender equality

We know a lot about the causes and consequences of gender inequality—but what about the solutions?

In her recent paper, published in Gender & Society, Clayman Institute Faculty Director Shelley Correll advances a promising new change model centered on one simple but powerful idea: small changes can lead to bigger ones. The paper is based on the lecture she gave upon winning the Sociologists for Women in Society’s 2016 Feminist Lecturer Award. 

According to Correll, sociologists have thoroughly unpacked the structural and cultural features that create and maintain gender inequality. However, scholars know far less about how to create change. As Correll discovered in her research with the Clayman Institute, understanding the problem is not the same thing as knowing how to solve it. Furthermore, change can be messy and incremental. 

“The changes we can realistically make in any one instance are often small and imperfect,” Correll writes. “I have decided I can live with that. We have to start somewhere.” 

What Scholars Know About Gender Bias

Correll begins her article with a summary of what we currently know about bias and inequality. Gender stereotypes bias evaluations through a process social psychologists have clearly mapped: sex categorization leads us to harbor certain expectations about others, which biases how we process information and ultimately impacts our evaluations and decisions.

Correll describes four main mechanisms of bias against women: extra scrutiny of women, holding them to a higher bar, shifting the criteria we use to evaluate them, and the “double-bind” women experience, in which judgments of competence and likeability are negatively correlated for women but not men.

Correll also details four workplace conditions that amplify bias: ambiguity, narrow definitions of success, the existence of groups that are lower status and distinct minorities, and artifacts in the environment that are culturally associated with the dominant group.

Solutions to Date 

Organizations have engaged in some efforts to decrease gender bias. One solution, unconscious bias training, has become increasingly popular in recent years, particularly in Silicon Valley. Such training attempts to teach individuals how to be less biased by stereotypes in their decision-making. However, according to Correll, the positive effects of the training can wear off over time. Furthermore, under certain conditions, unconscious bias training can be perceived as threatening to members of dominant groups, particularly white men. And unconscious bias training can actually increase bias by painting it as normal and common.

Correll identifies a key problem at the heart of unconscious bias training: the target of change is the individual, not the workplace context. 

Organizations have also made efforts to reduce bias through formalization, or creating established procedures for recruiting, hiring, and evaluating employees. By using formal procedures, organizations hope to evaluate everyone using a fair, equal process. However, scholars have identified that formal processes on the books can be decoupled from actual actions. Employees do not always follow the rules to the letter. Furthermore, gender can become embedded in the formal procedures themselves.

Small Wins Model

Given these challenges, Correll proposes a bold new change model with two key elements: 1. working with teams of managers, and 2. producing small measurable wins.

These elements have a number of important benefits. According to Correll, involving managers in the co-creation of new tools to reduce bias increases their buy-in and ensures that the tools are implemented as intended. And small wins have the advantage seeming doable to supporters, while often flying under the radar of potential detractors. By comparison, attempts to solve larger-scale problems run the risk of inciting opposition from detractors and seeming impossible to supporters. In Correll’s words, “When a small win is achieved, it often creates new allies and makes visible the next target of change.”

Small wins can produce what Correll calls “contagion,” inspiring other wins down the road. While small wins are often criticized for their smallness, Correll finds these small wins can produce important changes in their own right and spiral into larger changes later on.

Correll’s approach has five basic steps: educate, diagnose bias, develop tools, intervene, and evaluate.

For example, Clayman Institute researchers partnered with Digital Communications Technology (DCT, a pseudonym), an internet services company with over 20,000 employees, to implement and test this change model. By educating employees and executives about unconscious biases, as well as conducting surveys and focus groups, we identified performance evaluation criteria as a key pain point for DCT employees. Only 15% of women managers and 24% of men managers agreed that the criteria for performance were objective. Therefore, while subjective criteria may be especially likely to permit bias against women in evaluations, men also identified subjective evaluations as a developmental opportunity. Institute researchers then worked with DCT to co-design tools for clearly defining and applying evaluation criteria consistently, and they implemented the tools together in groups. They are now in the process of evaluating those tools’ effectiveness, and preliminary data suggest the intervention increased employee confidence in the evaluation process. 

Shifting from the Individual to the Org

A key assertion underlying Correll’s change model is that we should focus on changing organizational processes rather than just individuals. “To create sustainable change,” she says, “we need to shift the target of change from the individual decision maker to organizational processes.” 

How can we do this? Research from my dissertation suggests executives may have a difficult time conceptualizing organizational forms of inequality, and an even tougher time acting to change them.

In interviews and observations of one technology company implementing a gender equality initiative, I found that executives rarely saw gender inequality as rooted in organizational processes—the way organizations hire, evaluate, promote, and retain employees. So, when executives made decisions about what change initiatives to implement, they tended to favor solutions focused on individuals—unconscious bias trainings, developmental trainings for women, and mentorship and sponsorship programs for women. The organizational processes remained relatively unchanged.

In line with Correll’s change model, it’s important to move beyond individual solutions and help executives take the leap to changing organizational processes. To shift the target of change, we have to address the root of that target: how executives conceptualize inequality. If we can help executives better understand and identify the organizational causes of inequality, perhaps they’ll be in a better position to tackle organizational solutions.

Correll concludes her article on an optimistic note, pointing to the inspiring level of commitment demonstrated by change agents in organizations: “The most heartening part of this work for me has been discovering just how many organizational actors are deeply committed to equality. If we, as academics, can find ways to collaborate with those organizational actors then together we can jumpstart progress toward gender equality.”