Imagine that you’re the CEO of a male-dominated tech company that’s been excoriated for its lack of women managers. You decide to introduce a new leadership program for women.
In theory, it’s a great idea. In practice, such programs can wind up exacerbating existing gender bias at your company, making it even less likely that women are compensated fairly or rise to the top.
Much like a virus, gender bias mutates and adapts to its environment—often in strange and surprising ways. Consider nascent research suggesting that when we perform a good deed now, we may be more likely to do something less virtuous later. This phenomenon is known as moral licensing, and it has all sorts of implications for gender inequality.
Iris Bohnet, author of the new book What Works: Gender Equality By Design and a professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, thinks that we ought to take this issue seriously.
When we perform a good deed now, we may be more likely to do something less virtuous later. Some research, Bohnet writes, “raises the unsettling possibility that diversity programs aimed at influencing the worst offenders might backfire. A chauvinist manager who has undergone training might assume a moral license when conducting his next interview. Training designed to raise awareness about gender and race inequality may end up making gender and race more salient and thereby highlighting differences.” (It’s important to note that researchers have only just started digging into the gender equality implications of moral licensing, so many of these observations are speculations based on current studies.)
I posed the hypothetical tech CEO situation to Bohnet. Could moral licensing increase the chances that the tech CEO, after launching the women’s leadership program, would give his male subordinate a higher raise than his just-as-qualified woman?
“Moral licensing asks the question: could window dressing lead to worse outcomes?” she tells me. “And yes, theoretically, it could.”
“People have pretty low standards for convincing themselves that they are moral or egalitarian.” Consider one 2001 study, conducted by researchers at Princeton University. It found that most men and women readily disagreed with statements like “most women are better off at home taking care of the children,” or “most women are not really smart.” But after subjects vocalized their objections to such sexist statements, they were more likely to prefer a male job applicant instead of a woman for a job in the building industry, a stereotypically masculine environment. (The bar for a virtuous deed is apparently not very high.)
Another 2009 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that after people voted for US president Barack Obama, they were more likely to express views that favored white people at the expense of black people. In both instances, the theory goes, people felt the behavior they perceived as virtuous gave them permission to do something that was not.
“The positive spin on this phenomenon is that it shows that people care about morality,” says Daniel Effron, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, and a moral licensing researcher. “The concern raised is that people have pretty low standards for convincing themselves that they are moral or egalitarian. Our findings suggest that if people can’t point to something particularly egalitarian they’ve done recently to show non-racist credentials, they’ll think about a lot of really racist things they could’ve done but didn’t actually do… people are also good at convincing themselves that token acts of egalitarianism are solid evidence that they are an egalitarian person.”
None of this means that most women’s initiative or diversity trainings mask some kind of sexist conspiracy. “The malevolent view is that this would be strategic on the CEOs’ part, that these behaviors would quell any assumptions of sexism,” says Dale Miller, a professor of organizational behavior and moral licensing researcher from Stanford. “But we find more interesting the case where the CEO generally wants to do the right thing, but the problem is that in the way that a leadership program can bring talented women to the company’s attention, it also has the potential of licensing the choice of men.”
“What could happen is if you have women occupying low-status dean positions at a university, that will license you to have only men in high-status dean positions.” Although there’s no data to prove it, Miller and Effron both suspect that this effect impacts the way companies go about short-listing candidates for positions. If companies put together a diverse short list, they may feel as if they’ve fulfilled their moral obligations and allow their unconscious biases to guide them toward hiring another white guy.
Moral licensing also has implications for efforts to increase the number of women CEOs across male-dominated industries.
“What could happen is if you have women occupying low-status dean positions at a university, that will license you to have only men in high-status dean positions,” Miller explains. “So you can see the irony there, which is that you can, by having more vice presidents in your organization, reduce the likelihood that women will actually occupy the top position in the organization.”
This effect is reminiscent of MIT professor of management Emilio J. Castilla’s research, which shows that companies with policies designed to promote meritocratic advancement can actually exacerbate existing inequities. Castilla calls this the “paradox of meritocracy.”
So how can we mitigate the moral licensing problem?
One part of the solution involves changing social norms as well as individual biases, Bohnet says. She points to smoking and littering, two behaviors that became socially unacceptable within a generation. Behavioral change “can’t just concern me and my behavior,” she explains, “but must also concern me being watched by others, and going with the herd.”
Social norms play a major role in helping us to check our behavior. Social norms play a major role in helping us to check our behavior. “Even if no one else is watching me today, I will be less likely to drop a piece of paper on a clean beach than on a dirty beach,” Bohnet says. “I will infer from what I see what the norms are in this kind of environment.”
In much the same way, companies will be more likely to achieve real gender equality if the emphasis is on changing what larger groups see as acceptable behavior. People will start to change the way they act if they think everyone else is, too—and if they see evidence of that change all around them.
This effect may how the United Kingdom boosted the numbers of women on its corporate boards. Without introducing quotas, it increased the percentage of female directors on the boards of Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 companies from 12.5% in 2011 to more than 26% in 2015. The UK did this by relying primarily on behavioral design interventions like “comply-or-explain.” This regulatory approach “changed the default of what the right thing to do was,” Bohnet explains. “If companies did not meet their goals, they had to justify why not, and to explain what programs they had introduced and why they had not worked.”
Under such circumstances, managers are unlikely to point to past sexist comments they could have made and didn’t as justification for their companies’ lack of diversity. “Gender-diverse boards became the norm and companies with no female directors were the outliers,” Bohnet says. “Indeed, the outcasts were publicly shamed for it. This is the power of norms.”
Bohnet is optimistic that behavioral design can drive change. In bypassing our resilient, mutating biases to change the systems that enable them to thrive, behavioral design could just be the vaccine we’ve been waiting for.