How to Create Diversity While Avoiding Bias

Orchestras in the United States have had a diversity problem.

As recently as the 1970s, the top five orchestras had as few as 5% women musicians. That number has risen to 10% in the 80s, 25% in the 90s and is now in the 30% range.

The increase in the number of women in these orchestras is directly attributed to one change: the introduction of blind auditions.

In the 1950s, the Boston Symphony was looking to diversify its largely male orchestra. They attempted to do so by having musicians audition behind a screen.

However, the results did not change, as they found out, because they still were biased by the sound of women’s heels when the women who were auditioning walked across the stage.

It was only after the auditioning musicians removed there shoes that the diversity numbers started to improve — almost 50% of the women made it past the first audition.

The blind audition process helps to prevent unconscious bias.

In a world filled with information, our brains create heuristics — or cognitive shortcuts — to help us process information. However, these heuristics are subject to unconscious, cognitive biases.

Stereotyping is a cognitive bias. And our propensity to stereotype often takes place in our subconscious, in spite of our best efforts to be fair and tolerant.

Now, here is where everyone says, “Oh no, not me! I’m tolerant and accepting. I don’t stereotype. I’m not sexist. Or racist.”

Well, Harvard University invites you to see for yourself.

Their researchers created the Implicit Association Test (IAT), to test your subconscious biases. You can test your attitudes towards or beliefs about a multitude of groups and topics, including race, religion, age, disability, and more.

With unconscious bias as an unavoidable reality it raises the question — how can we nonetheless create greater diversity?

Universities have introduced blind tests to curb unconscious bias amongst professors and graduate instructors when grading tests.

Human resource departments have looked closely at the wording of their job descriptions, to ensure they are not introducing any biases, and have made significant steps in training their employees to understand and recognize the biases they are subject to.

And yet, there’s a catch-22 — when we focus on creating diversity, we invariably bring biases to the forefront.

When we focus on affirmative action policies, or when we are attempting to hire more women software engineers, we may subconsciously fall victim to the very biases we are trying to overcome.

The Boston Symphony experiment showed that even when they wanted to hire more women musicians, they did not do so in a semi-blind audition.

Only when the audition became fully blind were they able to eliminate unconscious biases.

So, should every job interview be fully blind, with candidates sitting barefoot behind a screen and talking into a voice changer?

That doesn’t necessarily solve the problem either, as there’s a laundry list of other cognitive biases interviewers may fall victim to — putting undue emphasis on their experience, education, age, and so on.

And in spite of our best intentions to close the diversity gap, our biases nonetheless make it very difficult to do so.

However, the upside is that diversity begets more diversity.

While we’re all subject to unconscious bias, our biases are different. Diversified biases ensures less concentrated biases, and therefore less marginalization.

The challenge is getting over the hump, and putting more diverse decision makers in the same room.

If we agree that diversity is important — and certainly there is enough empirical data out there to prove to business leaders that diversity has a positive ROI — why hasn’t the gap been closed more rapidly?

On the one hand, if we’re looking at women in tech as an example, the argument is that there is a scarcity problem.

That may be true. However if we’re qualifying “good” available talent, there’s likely biases at play, as we saw in the Boston Symphony example.

But if it is true that there is a scarcity problem, then we can develop the pipeline ourselves.

That’s exactly what Etsy has done — through their Hacker Grants, supporting women in tech — to advance their commitment to hire more women engineers.

Simultaneously, they worked to counteract biases in their hiring practices to the best of their abilities. The result? A 500% increase in female engineers in one year.

The tech industry may be a tough gap to close because of real scarcity challenges. In spite of Etsy’s efforts, their engineering team is still only about 30% women — a number that blows most other tech companies out of the water.

But what of other industries?

Why hasn’t the gap been closed faster?

If unconscious bias is unavoidable, perhaps radical action is necessary.

Why can’t we have an all women symphony? Or commit to only hiring African Americans?

If diversity begets diversity, perhaps radical action begets radical transformation.


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