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work in progress

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.GARETH PATTERSON/The Associated Press

This story is part of Work in Progress, The Globe's look at the global struggle for gender parity.

The following is an excerpt from What Works: Gender Equality By Design by Iris Bohnet.

Like most office lobbies, when you enter Harvard Kennedy School you will see portraits on the wall. They hang in our public spaces, classrooms, conference centres and office suites. Inspired by research findings, we recently added a few new ones. They now include Ida B. Wells, the U.S. civil rights activist and suffragist; Abigail Adams, the second first lady of the United States; Edith Stokey, economist and "founding mother" of the Kennedy School, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and a graduate of the school.

Harvard still has more to do. The student newspaper, the Crimson, reported in March, 2012: "Of the more than 60 figures portrayed in the art of Annenberg Hall, three are women – two of them are tending to children, while the third welcomes her warrior husband home to a life of domestic tranquillity."

Does it matter? Yes. Students' attitudes can be affected by subtle and simple changes. Sapna Cheryan of the University of Washington has demonstrated that just by changing decorations in a computer-science classroom, losing the Star Wars and Star Trek images for gender-neutral art and nature pictures, female students' associations between women and careers in computer science were strengthened. Even one's choice of screen saver can have a consequence.

One study subtly exposed people either to a picture of Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Bill Clinton, or no picture before they had to give a public speech. Women who had seen a picture of a female leader gave longer speeches that were rated higher both by external observers as well as by the women themselves than those who had seen a picture of Bill Clinton or no picture.

Role models did not affect men. They did equally as well, whether exposed to Bill or to Hillary Clinton or to no picture. Another study showed that pictures are not even necessary – just asking people to imagine what a "strong woman" looks like can undermine stereotypes.

Most organizations confronted with such simple design choices act unthinkingly. When entering a boardroom, you typically meet the previous – typically all male – company leaders. Correcting this sort of gender inequality through design is the very definition of low-hanging fruit, or at about the height one hangs a picture.

Adapted from What Works: Gender Equality By Design by Iris Bohnet, published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2016 by Iris Bohnet. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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