Beating Bias with Blindness

Blind Justice. By Tim Green.
Blind Justice.  Photo courtesy of Tim Green.

Managers and human resource professionals are supposed to have non-discriminatory hiring practices.  Yet we are only in the early days of seeing job applicants neutrally.  There are several new (and not-so-new) methods for considering applicants fairly.  There is also the possibility of using good math to prove and reduce bias.

Canada’s federal public service announced on April 20, 2017 that it is starting a pilot project to recruit job applicants on a name-blind basis.  The minister responsible said “research has shown that English-speaking employers are 40 per cent more likely to pick candidates with an English or anglicized name…”  At the end of the pilot they will analyze the two sets of candidate shortlists, both name-blind and traditional-method.  The results of the experiment will be ready in October, for possible roll-out to the entire public service.

What is worth noting is that the Canadian government is running a formal experiment for a limited time.  This raises hope that the eventual course of action will be determined by evidence, not speculation.  They will measure the discrimination before attempting to remedy it, which could bolster support.  The approach also implies the pilot has permission to fail.  After all, they might find something totally different from what they expected.  But that kind of thing that happens when you care about science.

Of course this pilot addresses only one part of the discrimination puzzle.  I would speculate that résumés that still indicate the year and city in which a degree is attained will tip-off employers about age and ethnicity.  An obvious next phase of analysis is to block-out the graduation date and the name of the University.  After all, you only need to know if they finished their degree, plus the degree’s level and academic major, and a broad sense of the school ranking (i.e. top-100, top-400).

Job applications also reveal writing style, which should be good.  But there are differences between the sexes in the use of words.  In the book The Secret Life of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker the author reveals the findings of high-volume statistical analyses revealing (amongst other things) that men make bold pronouncements without referring to themselves in first-person.  Women, by contrast, attribute their story to themselves, which is more clear, social, and modest.  I personally think that confidence, and willingness to boast, are unreliable indicators of competence.

In classical music, blind auditions are now commonly used to select new hires onto symphony orchestras.  They’ve been doing this for years.  The musicians submit recordings of their auditions and provide live performances behind a physical screen.  I have heard that judges gossip “you can tell” if the candidate is a man yet when the winner steps out from behind the screen it is often a woman.  In this not-so-new paper from 2000, authors Claudio Goldin and Cecilia Rouse conducted an analysis of 7,065 individuals and 588 audition-rounds to see what impact blind auditions had.  They identified that the blind auditions work.

When you’re fighting the man, words are important.  When you’re putting change into effect, math is importanter.

4 thoughts on “Beating Bias with Blindness

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