What Symphony Orchestra Auditions Tell Us About Designing People-Centred Policies

Meera Paleja, Behavioural Insights Fellow

In the 1970s, many major orchestras in the United States introduced a novel approach to auditioning musicians. Rather than having musicians audition in plain sight of the judge, musicians now played from behind a screen so that they could not be seen, only heard. So what happened? It turns out that after these changes were instituted, the proportion of women musicians hired by the top five orchestras in the nation more than tripled. Scholars attributed much of this difference to the change in the auditioning process.

There are three fascinating aspects to these findings: 1) under the old audition system, judges, highly trained musicians themselves, were unable to make an objective evaluation of the music that wasn’t influenced by the gender of the musician; 2) when the screen system was introduced, there was a dramatic increase in the proportion of women hired - showing how simple interventions could reduce massive gender disparities, and; 3) the orchestras were cognizant that these biases could exist, and made the bold move to introduce the screen system. It was a dramatic display of organizations’ willingness to admit that bias may exist and counteract it not through explicit instruction or rules, but rather through a behaviourally informed solution that takes human bias into account when developing a hiring process.

Violin players

As a Behavioural Insights Fellow at the Impact and Innovation Unit (IIU) working with Status of Women Canada, I often come back to this example when thinking about how we can create more inclusive policies and programs that benefit all Canadians, and how we can use behavioural science to tackle bigger gender-based “wicked problems” in our society. Awareness campaigns and diversity training have shown limited effectiveness at changing behaviour. This is in part because ingrained biases are not easy to override solely by providing more information to the person whose behaviour we want to change. Behaviour change can be facilitated when we design interventions that account for the fact that people have limited attention, they form quick judgments without evidence, they like to do whatever they see most people doing, and they tend to prefer the status quo, whatever that may be. To tackle problems in diversity and inclusion, we have to account for the fact that human beings exist on the other end of our policy.

To design the best policies and programs we need to think like scientists and question our assumptions. What evidence do we have that this is the best way of carrying out a policy or program? How can we test our assumptions to know what’s working and what’s not working?

One way to figure this out is by leveraging an integral feature of the behavioural science approach-experimentation. When we compare potential “treatment” interventions to a status quo “control” condition on the outcome of interest, we can reach evidence-based conclusions about what works and what doesn’t. This approach may seem novel in the diversity and inclusion space, but in fact, experimental psychologists in academic settings have been using this methodology to study bias and design techniques to counteract it for decades. Government is steadily catching up.

Behavioural insights is increasingly being regarded as a complementary policy tool to tackle complex and wide-ranging problems such as negating hiring and promotion bias, ensuring equal access for both parents to the labour market and childcare, and decreasing gender-based violence. In the policy realm, this work is in its infancy, but I’m excited by what feels like a new dawn - government’s appetite to tackle these issues, and also seek out the highest standard of evidence to do so.

Moving forward with this approach will no doubt have its challenges. Processes, procedures, and mindsets cannot be changed overnight. But I’m confident that with our shared values including a belief in equality as well as our desire for stronger evidence, the use of behavioural insights will help further gender equality. The integration of behavioural insights at Status of Women Canada presents a novel opportunity to make these advances in Canada, and I’m thrilled to be a part of this effort.

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