Adapted from Disrupt Bias, Drive Value: A New Path Toward Diverse, Engaged, and Fulfilled Talent (A Rare Bird Books paperback original; November 14, 2017. by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Ripa Rashid, and LauraSherbin.
It’s perhaps the most famous case study in the young history of attempts to combat bias. In 1952, the Boston Symphony Orchestra introduced “blind auditions”: to reduce gender bias in hiring, orchestra directors held auditions behind a screen.
As the legend goes, the intervention appeared at first to have a surprising result: that there was no bias in the audition process. The screen made little difference in who made it past the first round of auditions. Then, suspecting that the click-clack of high heels permitted judges to identify women as they entered, the hiring committee asked the musicians to take off their shoes.
Suddenly, the judges could focus on the music itself — and far more women made it through to the second round of auditions.
Other orchestras began adopting the Boston Symphony’s approach in the 1970s. By the 1990s, many saw increases in the number of female players. The New York Philharmonic, for example, reached 35 percent female musicians by 1997 — a dramatic increase over having zero female players for decades. One study of eleven major orchestras found that up to 55 percent of their increase in new female hires could be attributed to blind auditions.
The broader impact of blind auditions has been revolutionary. Not only have they spread across the music world, they also serve as a parable for bias busting in business books.
A sure sign of a legend, parts of the story even appear to be mythical — we couldn’t trace the high heels detail past secondary sources. High heels or no, the tale of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s blind auditions — and peer-reviewed research about their impact — has helped many business leaders understand the enormous role bias plays in how they hire, evaluate, and promote employees.
Unfortunately, the insights many have drawn from this intervention neglect its most important lesson. Rightly convinced that bias exists and that it must be largely unconscious — most business leaders must tell themselves that they’re choosing the most qualified person for a given position — organizations have invested heavily in bias awareness training. The idea is to make us all aware of our biases so that we can recognize them and resist acting on them.
Yet, there’s little evidence that bias awareness training accomplishes its goals. There’s even evidence, in fact, that it may do more harm than good. And the focus on bias awareness ignores the Boston Symphony’s most important lesson: that you must pinpoint where bias is happening, and then create a system (such as a screen and shoeless musicians) that mitigates that bias or prevents it from influencing decisions.
Taking the path that most bias-busting programs have missed, our approach begins not with cultivating awareness of bias among leaders, but with studying the experience of bias among those who are led.
Awareness of bias isn’t enough to stop it.
Asking individuals to fix their own biases fails, as a standalone intervention, to address systemic pressures that reward “fast thinking” or “gut” decision-making, pressures that ensure current leadership archetypes remain in place.
When we interact with another person, whether as a coworker, subordinate, supervisor or interviewee, we make countless “fast” decisions and judgments that add up to our opinion of that person. It’s impossible to expect people to constantly call out their own bias, accurately note it, and appropriately compensate for it throughout an hour-long interview or promotion committee meeting, much less throughout the months or years that make up a working relationship.
What would an effective solution consist of? The answer, we posit, is not to expect every individual to successfully identify and alleviate every possible instance of unconscious bias that they may exhibit. Instead, we identify conditions that cool down bias where it counts the most — when employees feel misjudged by leaders on their potential to succeed.
With its blind auditions, the Boston Symphony Orchestra didn’t discover a way to get audition judges to recognize and compensate for all of their biases. It found a system that prevented those biases from influencing their judgment.
Unfortunately, for most decisions being made in corporate America, there’s no way to create the equivalent of a blind audition.
In most organizations, the solution set will have to be more complex than putting up a screen and asking applicants to take off their shoes. It will have to target both manager behavior and the culture that shapes the employee experience. And it first requires individuals to understand precisely where bias is felt, so that organizations can map, measure and disrupt it where costs to individuals and their organizations are the greatest.
“There is something truly insurgent in saying, ‘Hey, let’s go look at the people who are impacted by bias, listen to them and then figure out solutions based on that,’ instead of starting top-down,” Philippe Krakowsky, executive vice president and chief strategy and talent officer at Interpublic Group, told us after we shared our methodology with him. “In the past, we’ve known bias exists, we’ve known that it permeates institutions, and yet we’ve approached it in a way that is very process-oriented — and not very connected to its effects on the individual.”