Back in the 1970s, less than 10 per cent of musicians in US orchestras were women. This had nothing to do with a feminine talent deficit it was more about unconscious bias and diversity. Major orchestra directors believed they were making rational decisions based on performance skills at audition. However, when curtains were introduced, visually separating auditioners from auditionees, something dramatic happened: the number of women playing in US orchestras has today risen to 40 per cent and is still climbing.
The curtains did nothing to change attitudes. Orchestra directors were utterly convinced that they were basing their decision only on the quality of the music, but the evidence told a different story. A simple technique – visual veiling – blocked bias from interfering with judgement. Those curtains made it easier for directors to discern real talent, regardless of gender or ethnicity.
The sad fact is that despite the intelligence and humanity of its practitioners, recruitment and talent management remain mired in biases. Of course, the solution doesn’t involve moralistic finger pointing. Let he or she who is without bias cast the first stone. This isn’t about identifying bad people. It’s about preventing bad decisions, which good people are all too capable of making.
The audition curtain I referred to has virtual counterparts in the form of software that enables prospective employers to blind themselves to applicants’ demographic characteristics. When gender, age, educational, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds are stripped from view, managers are divested of distracting “figures” and allowed to focus on information about talent in the CVs they read that might otherwise have receded into the unnoticeable “ground.”
According to US academic Iris Bohnet, bias can be removed from interview processes by one simple move: “stop going with your gut.” There’s overwhelming evidence that unstructured interviews are not the best path to talent evaluation; in fact, they are deeply misleading. Structured interviews, scored in real time, trump them virtually every time.
If you want a workforce that is capable of embracing organisational development, focus on talent and hard data, not instinct – the avatar of unconscious bias.