Have you heard the story about the violin behind the curtain? Back in the 1970s, the number of women in the top US orchestras was a mere 5%. Questions were asked, and they decided to conduct blind auditions in which candidates performed behind a curtain.
To their surprise, they found that blind auditions doubled the number of women advancing to the final stages and significantly increased the likelihood of a woman being selected. Women now represent 25% to 30% of these orchestras today, with much credit given to removing gender from the equation.
Is this gender bias unique to the world of music? In short, no. Gender bias is everywhere, and much of it unconscious. There's a multitude of research I could cite but I'll just mention two examples:
1. The Howard/Heidi case study, developed at Harvard and used by a number of business schools. Students asked to read a case study by someone called Howard Roizen, they rated him as highly competent and effective, someone they would like and be willing to work with. When the identical details are assigned to Heidi Roizen, however, the same students found her competent and effective but said they wouldn't like her or want to work with her.
2. Student evaluations. A science faculty were asked to evaluate student applications that included the same details but were randomly assigned a male or female name. Male candidates were rated as much more competent and worthy of hiring than the identical female candidates.
Not as fair as we think
Why does this happen? Because we all have biases. I have them, you have them. Men and women have them, young and old. From every ethnicity and walk of life. Our experiences shape us and can't help but influence us. We make snap decisions – not just about men and women, but about all sorts of things.
We think we're being fair and objective but we're not.
What can be done about it?
Unconscious bias is a major stumbling block for gender equality, but we can all do something about it. When companies address it, results follow.
Take the decision by Ernst & Young to remove all academic and education details from our trainee application process and introduce a blind CV policy to reduce unconscious bias. These steps in 2015 helped us to broaden our talent pool, with a 10% increase in the number of recruits from state schools. What's more, 18% of the talented graduates and students we hired in 2016 wouldn't have been able to apply under the previous policy.
You may often hear it argued that technological advancements will create a net negative effect for women, but there's reason to be optimistic. I think artificial intelligence could, in fact, help to reduce bias.
In time, it may be that developments like artificial intelligence (AI) actually help make society fairer. It is true that automation will make inroads on jobs that women represent a high percentage of, such as office administration, and fewer women study and work in the areas of science and engineering where new jobs will be created.
But on the flip side, AI and automation use preset rules and criteria, and these could improve our objectivity. It could stop talented candidates from being overlooked for jobs they are qualified for and able to do well simply because they don't fit with a promotion panel's unconscious biases regarding gender, race, disability or age.
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Taking bold action on bias
It's International Women's Day on 8 March. The theme this year is: be bold for change. And that's important because while there is inequality, we need to do more than talk about it.
It's worth stating that being bold doesn't necessarily mean huge, sweeping change. Sometimes that's not in our power. Small steps can also add up to big transformations.
Gender inequality is a complex issue and solving it will involve lots of interconnected pieces. Positive steps include creating a culture that understands and values diversity, that encourages both men and women to sponsor and mentor women, that trains people to identify unconscious bias and develop strategies to overcome it. It highlights female role models and promotes flexible working for all employees.
New rules for better results
Last year at Ernst & Young I took a pledge to increase the number of women in the professional pipeline. When I review lists of candidates for upcoming positions, I challenge my colleagues to find out if there is a female on that list. Because they're often there – getting on with their work instead of shouting about it – and it's in actions like this, in companies around the world, that will effect real change. We all have a role to play.
So let's be bold in 2017. Let's identify our biases and refuse to be ruled by them. Because teams that challenge from multiple points of view, and think through problems differently, deliver better results.