Orchestrating Impartiality

Summary of working paper 5903

Discrimination against women in the hiring process has been alleged for a number of occupations, but is extremely difficult to demonstrate. Now, according to an NBER study by Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse, a change in the way that symphony orchestras recruit musicians provides an unusual way to test for such bias.

Most orchestras revised their audition policies in the 1970s and 1980s and began to use a "screen" of some sort to conceal the identity of the candidate from the jury. In 1970, female musicians made up only 5 percent of players in the top five symphony orchestras in the United States; today they represent 25 percent.

Using data from the actual (confidential) audition records of eight major symphony orchestras, spanning the late 1950s through 1995, Goldin and Rouse estimate that use of the "screen" increases the probability that a woman will be advanced out of certain preliminary audition rounds by about 50 percent. The "screen" also enhances the likelihood that a female contestant will be the winner in the final round.

In "Orchestrating Impartiality: the Impact of 'Blind' Auditions on Female Musicians" (NBER Working Paper No. 5903), Goldin and Rouse also analyze personnel records covering 1970 to 1995 for selected orchestras. They find that the switch to "blind" auditions can explain 30 percent of the increase in the female proportion of "new hires." Blind auditions also explain 25 percent of the increase in the percentage female in the orchestras since 1970, they conclude.