Gender Equality

What the world’s best orchestras can teach us about gender discrimination

Woman with violin in dark roomBias 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 realize we have.

After all, if you were making a decision about hiring someone or giving an employee a raise, 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. In fact, you can test yourself right now to uncover your own implicit biases at Project Implicit. If you take that test, you might conclude that you, too, are affected by your culture in ways that lead you to evaluate men and women differently.

So if you are evaluating others, 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.

What might a truly gender-blind evaluation process look like? 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. FOLLE JOURNEEFor example, 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. And, indeed, the screen has also been demonstrated to be the source of a surge in the number of women being offered positions.

By the way, even a screen doesn’t always yield a gender blind event. Screens keep juries from seeing the candidates move into position, but the telltale sounds of a woman’s shoes allegedly influenced some jury members such that aspiring musicians were instructed to remove their footwear before coming onto the stage.

Assessment without bias

It seems impractical to imagine evaluating someone but remaining ignorant of their sex. But the orchestras show us: it can be done.

If we trust the research and accept that women are being judged more fairly because of the screen, perhaps we should ask if there’s any way to replicate the musicians’ success. What kind of screen would be needed at your workplace?

University faculty members constantly evaluate each other. It’s not just about hiring and promotion. Every week, we read and evaluate research articles submitted to journals and grant applications submitted to research councils. Success at publishing and raising funds is essential for anyone hoping to make a career in higher education. Is there any reason to think we are free of gender bias when we carry out these evaluations of our peers? Not at all. In fact, there are good reasons to think that we’re not.

How can we make these processes more gender blind? With grant applications, we see different success rates for men and women. The prestigious grants from the European Research Council, for example, consistently show that applications from women have a lower success rate than applications from men. Would blind reviews change this?

When scholarly articles are reviewed, the reviewers may not be told the name of the author. But the editors know who it is. I wonder if there are major journals willing to open their archives to let a researcher determine if the success rates for men and women are different.

Of course, simply identifying a difference for grant success or article acceptance rates doesn’t tell us why that difference is there. But without knowing the most basic facts, we don’t know where our work should be focused.

So, tell me, what do you think? What could the process seen in orchestras inspire you to change in your industry, whether it’s academia or something else? How could promotions be more gender blind? Should they be? What about publishing and grant applications? Leave your thoughts below, or tweet them (cc @curtrice) and let’s try to find ways to get our own evaluation instruments better in tune.

Research consulted: The research on orchestras was carried out by Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse and reported in Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians.

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more


1 Comment

  • Donald Merritt says:

    If I wanted to employ someone it would, or should, be based on MY NEED. The job should be based on the recipients need.
    I hired a female secretary. She was in her 50s. Reasonably smart, presentable and polite. She could follow the tasks presented to her. She could understand my language (English).
    I didn’t want someone that could be off having a child or being off looking after a child. I wanted someone who could manage the job offered. I could not make her work for me (if she disliked me for some reason) so WHY should I employ someone I don’t like? If after some time she decided she disliked me she could leave. WHY should I not be afforded the same right? If I want to employ someone to make me tea or sit on my lap or vacuum clean my home or office surely if that is what is agreed should be no problem
    If I wanted an attractive female so what.
    If I employ someone who becomes lazy and decides to take time off frequently why should I have problems in replacing her with someone who would appreciate the job?.
    Racism, sexism, ageism and no end of excuses can be levelled at an employer if the need arises to get rid of an employee but an employee can just leave at will.
    I know someone who employed an apprentice, male, who thought nothing of taking Fridays off (no notice or requests) and turned up for work at 10am instead of 8am. The employer obviously had to comply with employment laws to sack him. But surely taking a day off deserves the sack let alone every week.

    Donald Merritt

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