Rotman Management

How to Disrupt Bias—and Drive Value

IN 1952, the Boston Symphony Orchestra famously introduced ‘blind auditions’ to test for gender bias in hiring, by having musicians audition behind a screen. At first, the screen made no difference in who made it past the first round of auditions. Then, suspecting that a click-clack of high heels from female musicians as they entered the room rendered the screen ineffective, the hiring committee had the musicians remove their shoes when they entered. In the absence of gendered footfalls, the judges trained their acute ears on the music itself.

Other orchestras began adopting the Boston Symphony’s approach in the 1970s, and by the 1990s, many saw increases in the number of female players. The New York Philharmonic, for example, reached 35 per cent female musicians by 1997 — a dramatic increase over having had zero female players for decades. One study of 11 major orchestras found that up to 55 per cent of their increase in new female hires could be attributed to blind auditions.

Today, this case serves as a parable for bias-busting and has helped many business leaders understand the enormous role that bias can play in how they hire, evaluate and promote employees. Hiring decisions in particular have attracted scrutiny, with study after study demonstrating that the identity implied by the name on a résumé often sways decisions.

Meanwhile, companies have also begun to recognize the positive links between diverse leadership and business outcomes. As the workforce becomes increasingly diverse, busting bias is a business-critical priority.

In recent years, companies have focused a great deal on implicit or unconscious bias. In 1995, social psychologists and pioneered the theory of ‘implicit social cognition’ and created the IAT

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