The case for blind math
From the Afterword of "Blink" by Malcom Gladwell:
The story I think back on the most is the one from the conclusion: the
tale of blind auditions and Abbie Conant's confrontations with the Munich
Philharmonic. I'm drawn to it for a very simple reason: the classical
music world had a problem - and they fixed it.
Before the advent of blind auditions, the percentage of women in major symphony
orchestras in the United States was less than 5 percent. Today, twenty-five years
later, it's close to 50 percent. This is not a trivial accomplishment. Suppose that
back before the advent of screens, you and I had been on a committee charged with
addressing the terrible problem of discrimination against women in major symphony
orchestras. What would we have proposed? I think we would have talked about creating
affirmative action programs for women in the music world. I think we would have talked
about awareness programs for gender bias, and how to teach female musicians to be more
assertive in making the case for their own ability. We would have had long discussions
about social discrimination. I think, in other words, that our suggestions for change
would have been fairly global and long-term. Think about what we would have been
dealing with, after all. Orchestras are run by maestros, and maestros are powerful,
brilliant, single-minded, highly entrenched men who run their organizations like their
own private fiefdoms. It's not as if we can walk up to the maestro and say, "Maestro,
you don't know me, and, to be honest, I don't know that much about classical music.
But I really think the reason you aren't hiring women is that you are in the grip of
some powerful, buried biases against women." I suspect, at the end of long days of
meetings, we would probably have thrown up our hands and said that we would just have to
wait until the current generation of maestros - with their ingrained biases against
women - was replaced by a younger, and hopefully more open-minded, set of conductors.
But what happened instead? Experts in the classical music world tackled the
problem by addressing the way in which the instinctive judgments in auditions were made.
They didn't fixate on the person making the snap decision. They examined the context -
the unconscious circumstances - in which the snap decision was being made. They put up
screens. And that solved the problem then and there.
See the original research paper.