There’s a Better Way to “Screen” Conference Presenters than with Inclusion/Social Identity Check Boxes
(Be sure to read “Conference Professionals as Social Justice Warriors: Is This a Good Thing?” first.)
Not long ago, if you were a female musician who wanted to audition for an open orchestra position, you were at a distinct disadvantage, especially if it was for any of the more renowned European orchestras. In 1970, fewer than 5% of orchestras had any female musicians, largely due to strong gender bias exhibited by old-school male orchestra conductors. In the early 1980s, auditions behind screens were becoming more common. These “blind auditions” focused attention on the music performance, and not on visual first impressions that would color the entire audition, often well before the musician removed the instrument from its case.
In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell details the story of classical musician Abbie Conant (see photo). After applying for eleven trombone vacancies in orchestras across Europe, she heard only from the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, who invited her to audition. As luck would have it, the auditions were held in a Munich museum because construction had not been completed on the orchestra’s cultural center. A blind audition was used for the first round of auditions because another applicant was the son of a standing Munich Philharmonic member.
Of the the 33 applicants selected, Abbie was number sixteen. Long story short: When it was her turn to audition, she nailed it so well that the committee sent the remaining 17 applicants home without hearing them. The conductor, Sergiu Celibidache was ecstatic, until Abbie appeared from behind the screen to accept the congratulations, Maestro Celibidache was mildly apoplectic. He believed that a woman could not play the trombone; however, the Munich Philharmonic had two women (a violinist and oboist) only because those were “feminine” instruments. The trombone is considered a “masculine” instrument thanks to the imagery associated with military marching bands of Old Europe.
Abbie passed two additional rounds of auditions, and was hired, but faced continue bias from Celibidache (probationary periods for no reason, demotion to second trombone despite her excellent performances, false claims of unprofessionalism). She eventually had to take him and the Munich Philharmonic to court, where she prevailed on every count. Eight years later, she was reinstated to first trombone.
Here’s the point: Maestro Celibidache, her chief complainer, had listened to her play some of the most difficult trombone repertoire ever written, and “under conditions of perfect objectivity and in that unbiased moment, he had said, ‘That’s who we want!’ and sent the remaining trombonists packing,” writes Gladwell.
But when Celibidache and the committee got their first look at Abbie after that first-round audition, all those age-old prejudices and biases reared their ugly heads, and began to shove aside the amazing audible first impression of her performance. Now, imagine if Abbie had to audition without a screen and in full view of Celibidache and the committee: What chance do you think she would have had moving on being a female auditioning on a “masculine” instrument? What if she had to check the “gender” box or the “audition instrument” box first before anyone heard her perform?
The (average) percentage of female orchestra musicians has risen from less than 5% in 1970 to more than 50% in the country’s top 250 orchestras. The blind audition has demonstrated its viability not only for orchestras, but also for blind reviews of journal submission articles. Articles are judged solely on the merit of content, not on celebrity, reputation, author familiarity, gender, race, social identity or other checked boxes.
Many companies use blind résumé reviews (no candidate names) as a first-impression strategy to combat conscious or unconscious bias a decision maker displays if a candidate’s name reveals gender and/or racial or ethnic origin. Read Blink to learn how pervasive bias is, even when we think we believe we hold inclusive, unbiased perspectives.
You Can’t Escape Human Bias
There are certain inherent biases present in all human interactions, from auditions and job interviews, to first dates and even the field of work (or musical instrument) to which one drawn. These intrinsic assumptions are blind spots that can mask meaningful perceptions that can have significance or contribute to something greater. Harvard University social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji affirms the struggle with inherent bias:
Even the most well-intentioned person unwittingly allows unconscious thoughts and feelings to influence apparently objective decisions.
Academia is another place where bias often runs rampant. A Swedish study discovered female candidates applying for post-doctoral fellowships needed substantially more publications than male candidates to achieve the same rating, unless they were acquainted with a panel member (source: “Nepotism and Sexism in Peer Review,” Nature, 387, 341-343).
Blind Screenings for Conference Presenters Can Provide Objective Evaluation of Presentation Proposals
In an attempt to be more inclusive of members/conference presenters in certain demographics, the article entitled, “Other/Wise” in the October-November issue of CONVENE magazine proposes several ideas that claim to promote diversity and inclusion. However, as has been demonstrated in research and real life, those ideas mistakenly would create additional bias and exclusion because of the segmented categorization such check-box approaches (and mentalities) create.
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Donn LeVie Jr., CFE, is a keynote speaker, seminar presenter, and career/business positioning strategist who shows audiences how to engage, position, influence, and convert decision makers into clients and customers. Donn is the author of Confessions of a Hiring Manager Rev. 2.0 (Second Edition), which was the WINNER of the 2012 International Book Award and the GOLD MEDAL WINNER of the 2012 Global eBook Award for Careers. He also wrote Strategic Career Engagement: The Definitive Guide for Getting Hired and Promoted, which was the RUNNER-UP of the 2016 International Book Award (Careers) and the SILVER MEDAL WINNER of the 2016 Global eBook Award.
Donn is a member of the National Speakers Association, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, and the American Society of Association Executives. www.donnleviejrstrategies.com; firstname.lastname@example.org.