Sexism and Process Improvement

The Big Five are five symphony orchestras in the United States that “lead the field in musical excellence and calibre of musicianship”.

If you went to listen to them in the 1970’s, you would have noticed that about 5% of those excellent musicians were female.

If you do the same thing today that proportion is more like a quarter.

Statistics like that quickly beg the question why?

  • Have more women taken up music?
  • Did women suddenly become better musicians?
  • Has the proportion of women in the workplace grown?

What happened?

It is a difficult question to answer, there are a whole host of factors at play.

The statistic intrigued two economists Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse so much they carried out a study to find out what was really driving the change.  They discovered that a single issue accounted for most of it.

Blind auditions

In the 1970’s an audition consisted of a musician turning up in front of a panel of dignitaries and playing a piece of music which they listened to and evaluated.  Not too tricky, after all music is music.

But since then there has been a simple change in the way auditions are held.  The musicians now play behind a screen.  The only thing the interviewers can base their decision on is the sound of the music, not the appearance of the musician.

Listening blind has improved the fortunes of female musicians and, presumably,  the “calibre of musicianship”.

The potential for improvement is much wider than music

It doesn’t matter what you do for a living, to improve your processes challenge your preconceptions and make decisions on data and facts, not on the height of somebody’s heels or (insert current dodgy belief).

List the beliefs in your business… now, can you debunk them?

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Image by Mike Baird


  1. James,
    I wonder how we could apply these lessons to job interviews and would it lead to less discrimination in the workplace?


    • James Lawther says:

      Now there is a consulting opportunity Adrian. We’d be selling to people who knew it was the right thing to do, but didn’t want to do it. A little like dieting advice. It can’t fail.

  2. Hello James,

    It occurs to me that there is value in challenging one’s preconceptions and using data-facts as opposed to one’s beliefs and preconceptions. And I like the way that is you brought attention to this.

    Looking more deeply, I see something else. What I see is the interconnectedness between the observer, the observed, the setting and the totality of equipment in which that which shows up shows up. How to explain this more concretely? Who would be selected if the ‘panel of dignitaries’ was replaced by a panel of music lovers who actually attend the concerts? Who would be selected if you replaced human beings with a computer who ‘listened’ to the music and picked up the players who played the perfect notes according to some data driven scientific schema of how the playing should sound? Looking at the pattern rather than the thread, I wonder if the selections would be different if one picked a musician playing an instrument when he is playing on his own versus the same musician playing the same instrument and the same piece but now embedded in the bigger music ensemble?

    ‘Every set-up’ selects some and discards others. So what is selected is simply fit with the ‘set-up’ as a TOTALITY. Change threads of the totality and you change the selection pressures and thus who gets selected. Put differently, the answer is always determined, in advance, by the expected answer. Here I am reminded that if you look for electrons to show up as waves and set up the experiment to detect waves you find that electrons show up as waves. On the other hand, if you are looking for electrons to show up as particles, and design the experiment accordingly, electrons show up as particles. It occurs to me that this ‘feature of our way of being-in-the-world’ applies to much more than electrons: it applies all the way up.

    All the best

    • James Lawther says:

      Thanks for your comment Maz, very true. I guess we need to be very clear which “set up” we want, then at least we won’t be disappointed.

      I wonder if the setup they wanted was male musicians? I also wonder how many of them were white.


  3. James,

    I was first introduced to the concept of blind auditions watching The Voice. I like the idea because it levels the playing field in a variety of ways. It forces us to just sit and listen – to focus on what’s important (in that case, the music; in the case of hiring/interviewing, what the person is saying) – and drown out all the other noise that isn’t important to the decision at hand.


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