How to Reduce Implicit Gender Biases

We know from study after study after study that implicit, and sometimes explicit, gender and racial biases can have a serious effect on decisions in hiring, housing and other areas. This study from the Kennedy School of Government, which dealt with hiring decisions by symphony orchestras, shows how those biases can be reduced through blind judging.

The difficulties associated with proving and addressing gender discrimination in hiring processes have presented policymakers with a major challenge over the past few decades. In an attempt to overcome gender-biased hiring, a vast majority of symphony orchestras revised their hiring practices from the 1950s. Many orchestras opened up their hiring process to a range of candidates, rather than only hiring musicians who were handpicked by the conductor. As a result of these changes, most orchestras now hire new players after about three rounds of live or recorded auditions: preliminary, semi-final, and final. Additionally, as part of these revisions, a number of orchestras adopted “blind” auditions whereby screens are used to conceal the identity and gender of the musician from the jury. In the years after these changes were instituted, the percent of female musicians in the five highest-ranked orchestras in the nation increased from 6 percent in 1970 to 21 percent in 1993. Given the low turnover found in most symphony orchestras, the increase in female musicians is significant. In this seminal study, the authors examine whether these new hiring practices were responsible for the increase observed in women’s employment in symphony orchestras.

“Blind” auditions for symphony orchestras reduced sex-biased hiring and improved female musicians’ likelihood of advancing out of preliminary rounds, which often leads to tenured employment.

    Using a screen to conceal candidates from the jury during preliminary auditions increased the likelihood that a female musician would advance to the next round by 11 percentage points. During the final round, “blind” auditions increased the likelihood of female musicians being selected by 30%.

    According to analysis using roster data, the transition to blind auditions from 1970 to the 1990s can explain 30 percent of the increase in the proportion female among new hires and possibly 25 percent of the increase in the percentage female in the orchestras.

    In short, “blind” auditions significantly reduced gender-biased hiring and the gender gap in symphony orchestra compositions.

Currently, it’s required by law that everyone on a job, housing or loan application identify their gender and race. This is done in order to track progress and trace down possible discrimination. But could it be that going in the opposite direction would have a greater effect? I don’t know the answer to that. There are likely going to be some tradeoffs. But I do know that taking steps to prevent implicit biases of this type is important in making society more equal.

It’s simply undeniable that in virtually every decision of this type, discrimination is still quite common. There are simply too many studies out there on virtually every type of decision — hiring, housing, loan approvals, etc — if the person making the decision knows the race of the person applying, the likelihood of discrimination goes up, even when the applications are identical in every relevant way with those of white people. That is largely because of our implicit biases, something that even the most enlightened among us can easily fall into without even realizing we’re doing it.

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