“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
There was a time in my childhood when my answer would have been: “To become a professional classical musician.” Specifically, I wanted to a join a world-class symphony orchestra as a flutist which is why I finished high school early to attend the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I didn’t know it then, but I would have a much easier time achieving this goal, than had I been born 20 years earlier.
According to this dated — but still very relevant — 1997 study by Harvard Professor Claudia Goldin and Princeton Professor Cecilia Rouse, gender balance within professional symphony orchestras went from less than 5% female to more than 25% female over the course of two decades. How did this happen?
The rules of the game changed. Live auditions are the most important admissions to any musical group, whether its a summer music camp, conservatory program, or professional position. And during the 1970’s and 1980’s, orchestras increasingly adopted “blind” auditions where evaluating committee did not see the candidate, but listened to them play symphonic excerpts from behind a screen. This eliminated any possibility of bias from physical appearance, age, race, and gender.
It seems obvious that one way to counter unconscious biases is to simply remove irrelevant information. For example, are there really jobs where a hiring manager needs to know a candidates’ name at the resume stage? After all, HR technology has evolved to the point where computers, not humans screen for a certain objective criteria and keywords indicative of experience. Should the burden be on the hiring manager to justify why a name and other pieces of demographic information need to be part of the initial application dataset?
When I lived in London and was hiring for positions on my team based in Europe and Asia, I remember being surprised at the number of applicants who submitted resumes or CVs with attachments of their photographs and explicit statements of their race, age and marital status. As an American, I found these disclosures uncomfortable to deal with because I had been raised in a more “politically correct” environment where I was taught that these things shouldn’t matter. But clearly there are clearly different social, cultural norms at work around the world. It would be interesting to hear from readers why these pieces of information might be justified.
Its probably unreasonable to try to replicate the blind orchestral audition throughout the full hiring process, especially when speaking and meeting with a candidate is very important to assess intangible but important things like presence, confidence, or interpersonal skills. But in many cases, it seems extremely rational to actively remove the sources of our repeatedly demonstrated biases.