How blind auditions help orchestras to eliminate gender bias
It’s common for someone with strong biases to be unaware of them—to him (or her) the biases are invisible and they believe they are simply picking the best performer, who apparently is always male. Curt Rice had a nice write-up in the Guardian a few years back, and it’s worth reading with an eye to see what sort of gender-blind devices might help in your situation (e.g., recruitment, performance evaluations, promotions). The article begins:
Bias cannot be avoided, we just can’t help ourselves. Research shows that we apply different standards when we compare men and women. While explicit discrimination certainly exists, perhaps the more arduous task is to eliminate our implicit biases — the ones we don’t even realise we have.
After all, if you were making a decision about hiring someone or giving an employee a pay rise, wouldn’t you like to be fair? Don’t you think you should carry out your evaluation using only criteria that actually matter?
A lot of us think we can make evaluations based on quality alone. But the research suggests otherwise. So how might you make sure that your implicit biases are kept at bay?
Gender blind evaluations
You could try to do your evaluation without knowing the sex of the person you’re evaluating. If you didn’t know whether the applicant was a man or a woman, then your biases shouldn’t be triggered. Needless to say, it’s quite difficult to set up a process that truly is gender blind.
An interview makes it impossible. But even written descriptions of applicants contain hints about the sex of the person. The most obvious, of course, is the name, but there are other subtle indicators there, too.
Letters of recommendation that don’t use first names may nonetheless reveal the sex of the person being written about. Women get described as caring about their students or clients, while men are said to have strong relationships with those groups. It’s unplanned, it’s not intended, but we do it. And when we do, we give different impressions about the qualifications of applicants.
If we could avoid interviews and steer clear of using written profiles to review candidates, maybe we could stay gender neutral. Except, what would then be the basis for our decisions? Here’s where the orchestras come into play.
Sexism in orchestras
Over the past several decades, orchestras have started changing the way they hire musicians. One of these changes was designed to eliminate bias against women.
It would be hard to deny that there was such a bias in the composition of orchestras. As late as 1970, the top five orchestras in the U.S. had fewer than 5% women. It wasn’t until 1980 that any of these top orchestras had 10% female musicians. But by 1997 they were up to 25% and today some of them are well into the 30s. What is the source of this change? Have they added jobs? Have they focused on work that appeals to women?
The size of a major orchestra is quite stable; they all have around 100 musicians. Furthermore, the types of jobs do not change. The increase in the number of women cannot be attributed to a redistribution giving the orchestra fewer bassists — traditionally played by men — and more harpists — where more women are found.
In the 1970s and 1980s, orchestras began using blind auditions. Candidates are situated on a stage behind a screen to play for a jury that cannot see them. In some orchestras, blind auditions are used just for the preliminary selection while others use it all the way to the end, until a hiring decision is made.
Even when the screen is only used for the preliminary round, it has a powerful impact; researchers have determined that this step alone makes it 50% more likely that a woman will advance to the finals. . .