Research

How we talk matters

The impact of communication on gender equality: 
a randomised controlled experiment.

Go back to the summer of 2017. The debate on the anti-diversity ‘Google Memo’ was raging, a pay gap scandal had engulfed the BBC and Uber had fired over 20 employees on the grounds of sexual harassment.

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Amid the outcry, the corporate narrative for inclusion remained static. Listen to the largest organisations in the world today, and you’ll still hear gender equality pitched as a means to greater performance and profit, rather than a fundamental matter of fairness and human rights. 

The gulf between the raw emotion in the real-world and the cool passivity of our corporate institutions seemed to warrant attention. Does it matter how we promote inclusion at work? Are companies right to reach for the ‘business case’ as their catalyst for progress? We planned to test these questions with the rigour of a randomised controlled experiment.


The impact of framing on attitude 

We asked 267 participants, working at profit-making organisations in the US or UK to take part in a survey, and we randomised them into two groups.  Each received a different introduction — one highlighted inclusion as a matter of rights and fairness; the other led with improved performance: 

 
 

Once people had read the introductory paragraph, we took some demographic information before asking whether they thought inclusion was important. We also asked them to choose one of three reasons why...

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There was no statistical difference between the responses of our groups, suggesting our introductions had a limited influence on the answers. Regardless of the message our participants received at the outset of the survey, the majority attributed high importance to the inclusion agenda (on a 5-Point Scale) and chose ‘rights and fairness’ as their priority motive.

 
 

But this didn't align with how employers talk

When we compared these results with the 'headline narrative' on the diversity websites of the forty largest organisations in the FTSE 100 and Dow Jones 500, we found a clear disconnect between what people think and how companies talk. Thirty-seven promoted equality as a means to improve performance, with only four – Amazon, Google, Facebook and Unilever - also referencing human rights, fairness or social responsibility. Together, the 40 companies we studied represent over 4 million employees and billions of customers around the world. They may find the misalignment a cause for concern.

Roll over the logo to read the headline narrative. Download the full list below.

 

Rights & Performance

 We want to accelerate progress in equality and women's empowerment, because they are central to both our social impact and our business growth. That process starts with building a gender-balanced organisation with a focus on management. Leena Nair, our Chief HR Officer explains our approach: “We work with women in the workforce to help build the confidence needed to navigate a biased world. We work with men to increase their understanding that a balanced workplace is good for them and for business.

We want to accelerate progress in equality and women's empowerment, because they are central to both our social impact and our business growth. That process starts with building a gender-balanced organisation with a focus on management. Leena Nair, our Chief HR Officer explains our approach: “We work with women in the workforce to help build the confidence needed to navigate a biased world. We work with men to increase their understanding that a balanced workplace is good for them and for business.

Performance

 We aim to create an inclusive workplace to attract and retain the most talented people from all backgrounds and cultures. We focus on creating an inclusive organisation where all employees feel engaged and know their work makes an important contribution. An inclusive environment welcomes different knowledge, perspectives, experiences and working styles from across our global population.  This not only enhances individual creativity and innovation, but makes good business sense.

We aim to create an inclusive workplace to attract and retain the most talented people from all backgrounds and cultures. We focus on creating an inclusive organisation where all employees feel engaged and know their work makes an important contribution. An inclusive environment welcomes different knowledge, perspectives, experiences and working styles from across our global population.

This not only enhances individual creativity and innovation, but makes good business sense.

Performance

 We’re proud to offer equal opportunities regardless of race, nationality, cultural background, gender, age, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, religious or political belief. We can only leverage this diversity by building an inclusive culture where everyone is respected, can be themselves and strive to be their best. That way we can build a better future for our employees, our partners, the communities we work in and our customers.

We’re proud to offer equal opportunities regardless of race, nationality, cultural background, gender, age, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, religious or political belief.
We can only leverage this diversity by building an inclusive culture where everyone is respected, can be themselves and strive to be their best. That way we can build a better future
for our employees, our partners,
the communities we work in and
our customers.

Performance

 We work to attract, motivate, develop and retain the best talent from the diversity the world offers – our ability to be competitive and to thrive globally depends on it

We work to attract, motivate, develop and retain the best talent from the diversity the world offers – our ability to be competitive and to thrive globally depends on it

 

Rights & Performance

 "A diverse mix of voices leads to better discussions, decisions, and outcomes for everyone.”  Sundar Pichai, CEO, Google.  Fostering a fair and inclusive Google. We're creating an environment where every Googler can thrive.

"A diverse mix of voices leads to better discussions, decisions, and outcomes for everyone.”

Sundar Pichai, CEO, Google.

Fostering a fair and inclusive Google. We're creating an environment where every Googler can thrive.

Performance

 As a business operating in markets all around the world, we believe diversity brings benefits for our customers, our business and our people. We want a connected workforce that reflects the communities where we operate and helps us meet the needs of customers from all walks of life. Different ideas and perspectives help us innovate, manage risk, and grow the business in a sustainable way.

As a business operating in markets all around the world, we believe diversity brings benefits for our customers, our business and our people. We want a connected workforce that reflects the communities where we operate and helps us meet the needs of customers from all walks of life. Different ideas and perspectives help us innovate, manage risk, and grow the business in a sustainable way.

Performance

 At Facebook, we believe that understanding and managing unconscious bias can help us build stronger, more diverse and inclusive organizations. These videos are designed to help us recognize our biases so we can reduce their negative effects in the workplace. Surfacing and countering unconscious bias is an essential step towards becoming the people and companies we want to be.

At Facebook, we believe that understanding and managing unconscious bias can help us build stronger, more diverse and inclusive organizations. These videos are designed to help us recognize our biases so we can reduce their negative effects in the workplace. Surfacing and countering unconscious bias is an essential step towards becoming the people and companies we want to be.

Performance

 Amazon has hundreds of millions of customers who benefit from diversity of thought. [...] Our diverse perspectives come from many sources including gender, race, age, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, culture, education, as well as professional and life experience. [..] We believe that diversity and inclusion are good for our business, but our commitment is based on something more fundamental than that. It's simply right. Amazon has always been, and always will be, committed to tolerance and diversity. These are enduring values for us, which are reflected in our Leadership Principles, and nothing will change that.

Amazon has hundreds of millions of customers who benefit from diversity of thought. [...] Our diverse perspectives come from many sources including gender, race, age, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, culture, education, as well as professional and life experience. [..] We believe that diversity and inclusion are good for our business, but our commitment is based on something more fundamental than that. It's simply right. Amazon has always been, and always will be, committed to tolerance and diversity. These are enduring values for us, which are reflected in our Leadership Principles, and nothing will change that.

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The impact of framing on behaviour

We didn’t stop there - while changing our motive hadn’t influenced attitudes it could still influence behaviour. We had paid people for their participation to this point, but we now asked them to contribute some discretionary time and effort in service of the equality agenda. We repeated the performance or fairness motive in a simple request:

 

56%

said yes

70%

said yes

 

Put together this might seem strange ...

We had found an attitudinal disconnect between people and large corporations when it comes to equality. Our participants said inclusion was important because of rights and fairness, while organisations spoke overwhelmingly of productivity and performance. 

But despite what people said, they were significantly more likely to agree to a discretionary action when the performance motive was used...

 
 

What's going on?

In our experiment, the stronger people felt about equality the more likely they were to behave in its service (i.e. the importance participants attributed to inclusion on our 5-point Likert Scale was statistically predictive of their willingness to act). The vast majority said this importance stemmed from ‘rights and fairness’ rather than 'organisational performance'. We use this finding to suggest that if you strengthen this attitude; you will also influence positive behaviour.

But why was performance a more effective motivator for action later in the survey? There are many examples in life where we need a nudge to stick to our goals. And because nudges work in-the-moment they can sometimes seem to defy ‘rational’ explanation. In this instance, a nudge based on performance was significantly more effective when used in a specific request for action. This distinction is likely to be important. In our paper, we suggest it reflects a difference in mindset during reflective ‘goal setting’ (which may be influenced more by prosocial motivation) and action-orientated ‘goal striving’ (which may be promoted more effectively by self-interest). But there are no easy answers. The key takeaway is that we're motivated by different things at different times and we need to understand and account for that in our communications. 

We want our research to encourage companies to think harder about the attitudes and behaviours they are trying to promote, so they can test and adapt their messages to those outcomes. Many, including the organisations profiled above, have made a public commitment to gender equality. Their voices are loud and their words are influential: the way they talk matters.

MoreThanNow combines expertise in behavioural science, communications and design to create meaningful workplace change. Get in touch to explore a better way to a fairer, higher performing and more innovative world of work.

 
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