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Little Changes, Big Impact: Diversity in Hiring Practices

January 17, 2017

 

 

Ever since reading the first paragraph of Iris Bohnet’s What Works: Gender Equality by Design, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the impact of bias in hiring.  In that first paragraph (of a wonderful book, by the way), Dr. Bohnet refers to a study that investigates how one small change in the design of symphony auditions greatly increased the number of women musicians in these symphonies.  

 

Prior to the 1970s, symphony orchestras were predominantly composed of white males.  In the 1970s and 1980s, more and more women became members of symphony orchestras, a change that was partially due to how auditions were conducted.  

 

During this period, "blind auditions" became the norm.  In these auditions, the musicians played behind a screen or curtain so judges only heard the musicians, rather than hearing and seeing them.  Therefore, judges were evaluating the musicians solely on their musical talents, not on any other factors.  

 

The study by Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse demonstrated how this small change alone resulted in a 50% increase in the probability that a woman musician would advance to a further round of auditions and substantially increased the likelihood of a woman musician being selected in a final round of auditions.  


Just a week or two ago, I was reading an article about my alma mater, the University of Missouri, and its attempt to reduce bias in hiring.  Mizzou, as it is affectionately known, recently had racial tensions boil over and affect the student body, staff, faculty, and administrators (for a timeline of events, look here or here).  

 

In order to address the effect of bias in hiring and with the end goal of increasing the diversity of job applicants, all members of hiring committees for academic positions at the University of Missouri must take what the university calls unconscious bias training, sometimes called implicit bias training. The thinking is that by understanding your own biases, you can take steps to reduce their effect on your actions and decisions.  While I personally believe that to reduce bias in hiring more needs to be done than simply offering unconscious bias training, I do think that this is a step in the right direction. As Vangie mentioned in last week's blog post, being aware of your biases and checking them can prevent biases from affecting your actions and benefit society as a whole.


Reading about the large impact of these small changes has made me reflect on what other small changes could be made to the hiring process to increase the diversity of both the applicant pool and the people subsequently hired for a job. Individuals’ biases can affect how they react to a person’s name on a resume, as a study has shown.  Whether someone is named Emily or Jamal, for example, affects that person’s chances of receiving an interview, even if the two candidates have the same resume.

 

How can these biases be addressed?  Well, in the university setting, many professors don't have students put their name on their papers, but rather have them use their student identification number in order to reduce potential bias when grading.  Could the same be done for job applicants?  If what really matters for job applicants is their qualifications, just as what really mattered for the musicians was how they played, could a “blind audition” process of excluding names from resumes be used?


When developing our new EquityLogic™ diversity training curriculum this past year, we introduced other strategies for increasing diversity among job applicants and those who are hired.  These strategies involve closely examining the hiring process as a whole, from job postings to the interview process, as well as examining the culture of a workplace.  

 

Some of our suggestions include rewording job postings to provide an opportunity for more applicants to apply, ensuring that interview sites (and restrooms!) are accessible for all applicants, posting job listings with diverse sources such as language schools and specific community groups (e.g. organizations for seniors, veterans, or the LGBTQ community), and utilizing a scoring rubric for interviews to reduce the influence of subjectivity.  Hopefully these suggestions are further examples of small changes with a large impact, just like the blind symphony auditions.


One constant throughout these small changes with large impacts is that the changes were made intentionally.  Businesses and organizations need to examine their values and culture, want to increase the diversity of their workforce, and be intentional in making this happen.  Once this intentionality is present, a few small changes CAN have a tremendous positive impact on diversity in hiring.  


As much as I’ve focused on diversity in hiring, I haven’t yet discussed the importance of inclusion.  Diversity is important, but so is inclusion.  Providing opportunities for diverse applicants and those who are hired is a great first step, but it’s not enough.  In fact, diversity for diversity's sake is meaningless if the diverse staff or workforce doesn’t feel a sense of belonging.  I’ll address this topic more directly in my next blog post, but let me reiterate that diversity in hiring alone will achieve nothing if intentional steps aren’t taken to make new hires and current employees feel included, welcome, valued, and respected.
 

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