Gender-blind faculty searches

In discussions of gender biases in evaluating candidates, an example that often comes up is the case of blind auditions for orchestras. The use of blinded initial rounds of auditions makes it 50% more likely that a woman will make it past the preliminary rounds, and the proportion of women in professional orchestras has increased dramatically since blinded auditions became common. However, it never seemed to me like it would be possible to use this approach for faculty searches. How would you blind the process?

Thus, I was quite interested when I recently came across this article by Jones and Urban in BioScience that describes an attempt by the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at the University of Connecticut to have a gender-blind faculty search. (Based on their description, it sounds like they were also aiming for a race-blind search process.) Given the evidence for the implicit biases that we all have, this seems like a laudable goal.

However, as expected, carrying out a gender-blind search proved logistically difficult. They weren’t able to advertise it as gender blind for legal reasons and, therefore, couldn’t request that the application materials did not reveal gender. Instead, they had a department administrative assistant go through the materials to redact names, pronouns, and other identifying information (e.g., minority postdoctoral fellowships). The administrative assistant sat in on meetings to answer questions about how prestigious the redacted fellowships or awards were. The process of redacting the information in the files took 100 hours – that is a huge investment!

Sadly, they say that this ended up not being effective in many cases. It doesn’t take much to figure out a person’s gender. For example, “he” takes up less space than “she”, so it was sometimes clear what the gender was based on the size of the redacted area. However, only some committee members (one in particular) cued in on the length difference, and most of the committee members were unable to guess the gender of the applicants in cases where the materials were fully redacted. That italicized phrase is key, though – it sounds like at least one gender-revealing word or pronoun managed to slip through in many applications; all it takes is one slipping through to make all the other redacting for naught.

So, I would say that it seems like this was an interesting experiment to try, and that the UConn EEB department should be commended for being concerned enough about this issue to try this experiment. But, given the challenges, it seems unlikely that this will catch on.

If any readers know of other institutions that have tried something similar, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

14 thoughts on “Gender-blind faculty searches

  1. Their experiment appears ongoing, as they are doing the same thing in their ongoing search for a plant ecologist. The ad actually states that the search is race/gender blind (link below), so they must have gotten past the legal issues.

    I think it’s an interesting start, but in my experience the real issues with bias emerge later in the search process and I still don’t have a sense as to how those can be addressed. I was also surprised (=disappointed) to hear how little discussion there was of diversity as a priority in the last faculty searches I’ve been a part of. My sense is that unless a Dean says “send me a more diverse short list or else your search can’t go forward”, things will remain more or less as they are.

    Thanks for the the nice post…I’m forwarding it on to our Dean’s, as we are about to do some more searches soon.

    UConn Plant Ecology search (Race/Gender-blind):

    • That’s really interesting that they’re doing it again! I guess they got around the legal issues. I had wondered about those — they were advertising that they had done it in a publication, so it seemed like maybe they were no longer as concerned about that issue.

      There is a lot of discussion here about the importance of diversity. It is really nice to see that people take it so seriously here.

  2. I know this have been piloted in Finland in public sector but not in universities. In city of Helsinki in their pilot, they redacted name, address, age, gender, marital status, family information, nationality, native language, place of birth and also institutions where the applicant studied. Obviously, a lot of work, but electronical applications might ease in this process later on. Also in Sweden they’ve tried similar processes in universities but only for technical and administrative staff.

    But my real question: aren’t scientist judged based on their publications? Redacting gender from publications must be impossible. Other non-essential information might be easier to redact, but then again I don’t know if there’s unanimity in what is essential, I guess in recruiting assistant professor, the age tends to be considered an important aspect.

    • This is my question – how can you redact gender and even identity from the publications section of a CV. You can redact the author’s name. But you would think at least some people on the committee would know specific papers and therefore know the authors and therefore know the candidate. And even something as innocent as a quick check of ISI or Google Scholar to get number of citations and look at citation history is going to give the name away.

      Anybody on or near the short list I am going to spend some time poring over the publications looking for patterns, seeing if I can figure out which labs they went through, collaboration patterns, citation history (not just raw #’s but types of papers that picked up on the paper).

      Not saying this isn’t important enough to be worth trying to figure out, but I can’t figure out how to do it.

      • Yeah, it seems like it would mainly work for the first pass cut. After that, it seems very difficult.

  3. I was just thinking about this. So it seems that making some of the materials gender blind wouldn’t be to hard. Such as the CV and maybe research statement? It’s the letters that would be more of a problem, correct?

    Also if this is all electronic it should be feasible to search and replace pronouns and put in ze.

    • For the initial cut, I agree. But once people want to look more at the publications, it seems like it would get harder. Though, now that I think about it, I guess those could have the name obscured/changed, too, to make it so that the applicant’s gender isn’t clear.

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  6. I think at the faculty level it would be extremely difficult. For smaller fields or fields that are more focused/specific, it is really not difficult at all to guess (based on topics, collaborators, etc etc) who the applicant is once the CV is made available. I also don’t know if there is anything that can be done at the later stage to make the process really blinded.

    I would however be interested in seeing a study done at an early career level, like when students are applying for scholarships, or for post-doc positions. At that point, a greater portion of the review process rely on the applications. It is likely there that we will see a more significant difference.

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