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!