In a study published in 2000, two professors – one from Princeton, the other from Harvard –concluded that blind auditions exponentially increased the probability of female musicians being selected for seats on major symphony orchestras. In blind auditions, musicians play from behind screens, thus removing the distraction of the person, including the person’s race, age or (the focus of the study) gender. The study collected data from eight symphony orchestras over four decades. The problem is, according to a Wall Street Journal article, the data presented a “tangle of contradictory trends” that did not support the unequivocal bottom line presented by the authors. Indeed, “[t]he paper includes multiple warnings about small sample sizes, contradictory results and failures to pass standard tests of statistical significance. But few readers seem to have noticed. What caught everyone’s attention was a big claim in the final paragraph.”
The WSJ article also contrasts the blind audition study with a study in 2007 by behavioral scientists in Australia that analyzed blind selection for 2000 applicants. This study concluded that women actually fared worse in non-blind recruitment. “It turned out that many senior managers, aware that sexist assumptions had once kept women out of upper-level positions, already practiced a mild form of affirmative action. Anonymized hiring was not only time-consuming and costly, it proved to be an obstacle to women’s equality.”
Not surprisingly, a market has developed for blind interviewing software to strip identifying information from applicant resumes. Articles also offer tips on how to create skills-based techniques to assess applicants based not on education and prior work experience but on task-based exercises or analytical answers to problems that amount to the ultimate final exam. We have heard from recent MBA graduates that the time and analysis involved in these processes makes them wonder if they are being mined by companies for free work product.
Yet, workplaces are not laboratories and studies designed by humans may include human biases. Moreover, assembling a group of highly skilled workers blindly does not necessarily build a team. Chemistry, the joy of human interaction, the excitement of working with people who have a spark that makes you laugh and want to come to work most days is the byproduct of the old fashioned, messy selection process when done right. While attempts to eliminate biases that arbitrarily exclude applicants based on race, sex/orientation, and other protected characteristics remain the target, attempts to build a team through blindness may miss the mark.