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Shara Roy, partner at Toronto litigation law firm Lenczner Slaght, says the blind hiring process has yielded some positive results.Tijana Martin

Despite recent attention devoted to gender equity in the workplace, gender bias persists in hiring practices across industries and sectors.

In a United Nations study last year involving people from 75 countries, researchers found that close to 90 per cent of men and women surveyed had some sort of bias against women. About half said they believe that men make better political leaders, and over 40 per cent said that men make better business executives.

Meanwhile, the Power Gap persists. The Globe and Mail’s investigation in January found women to be “outnumbered, outranked and out-earned by men not just at the very top, but on the way to the top and in the middle.” Women of colour were particularly under-represented.

Could blind hiring be a way to stop gender bias in its tracks?

Toronto-based litigation law firm Lenczner Slaght has implemented a blind hiring process since 2018, says partner Shara Roy.

“We’re always looking for ways to improve our commitment to diversity and inclusion,” she says. “One of the things that came to our attention in 2018 was that anonymization could be beneficial.”

Between 400 and 600 students apply for the firm’s Summer Student Recruitment program for 10-12 positions, Ms. Roy says. The firm uses a blind process to hire their summer students each year, using software to search for and remove proper names and pronouns in PDF documents. Those in charge of hiring also take unconscious bias training prior to the interview process.

What Ms. Roy finds interesting about the anonymization process is that it stops the application reviewers’ automatic, habitual thinking and reacting. Name-blinding focuses the reviewer instead on attributes they’re looking for in students, lawyers and team members, she notes.

Name-blind screening has also been used for other positions including the Lenczner Slaght Advocacy Internship program to great effect, Ms. Roy says. Given that the process has only been in practice for four years, the results are anecdotal, but there has been a difference, she says.

“It’s not consistently the case that we’ve only had female groups, but I think we certainly do see more women,” Ms. Roy says. The firm’s current year of articling students, for example, is 100 per cent female.

And while Ms. Roy says that name-blind recruiting for more senior positions is a bit more difficult, “we are certainly open to it and would consider how we might be able to do so.”

Benefits and challenges

Arguably the most famous of all blind-hiring experiments involved orchestras across the United States. During blind auditions, screens were employed to conceal candidates, and one study suggested this increased the number of female musicians in U.S. orchestras from five per cent in 1970 to 25 per cent by the 1990s.

But blind hiring processes haven’t been successful in all cases. While some research has shown the process yields benefits for more diversity in hiring, there are cases where results have been perceived as mixed.

András Tilcsik, associate professor of strategic management and Canada Research Chair in Strategy, Organizations and Society at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, has been trying to understand why that is. He has three hunches, he says.

First, workplaces that are actively looking for diverse candidates may find that instituting a hiring process in which there are no signifiers of gender or other dimensions of diversity may subvert their efforts.

Secondly, by blinding reviewers and hiring managers to names and gender, reviewers may, consciously or subconsciously, look for other clues, Dr. Tilcsik says.

“As a result, you might become even more focused on some other signals in the resume that are not relevant to their performance.” For example, recruiters may see time gaps in a resume and erroneously attribute those gaps to a woman on parental leave.

The third issue that comes up around blind hiring is that in most hiring contexts, it’s hard or impossible to blind evaluators to the applicants’ gender and other observable characteristics throughout the entire process, Dr. Tilcsik says.

“If you want to have an interview with this person, it’s hard to avoid,” he says.

“I think it just underscores the importance of experimenting locally and thinking about what your organizations’ specific problem is, and what these tools would do if you introduced them.”

Tools to eliminate bias

Whether blind hiring is employed or not, there are additional ways to help eliminate bias in the hiring process.

Data is important to gain a baseline across the organization, looking at who’s joining, why and at what level, says Erin Roach, executive director of the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University. “You have to know your current state and that will help you understand where there are gaps.”

Organizations should review how they conduct outreach, including how they write job postings, where they are placed and how the organization is connecting with under-represented groups they want to attract, Ms. Roach says. “Are they using diverse channels and networks that will help them reach a broader and more diverse candidate pool?”

In order to avoid bias during in-person interviews, applicants should be asked a similar set of questions in structured interviews to guard against biases, says Toni Schmader, professor and director of the Engendering Success in STEM consortium at The University of British Columbia. It’s also important to set targets for what diversity could look like, with accountability and time frames built in, Dr. Schmader adds.

Ms. Roy is hopeful that these types of initiatives will make it more likely that women will stay in practice. When she was in law school 21 years ago, more than half of the school population was female, she says.

“Then, you got to articling, which was less,” she says. “Now [when] I look around Bay Street at the big firms [and think of] the women I articled with, the women I went to law school with, I don’t see them. Why is that? I think that starts right with recruiting, at the entry level with summer students and articling students.”

Blind hiring may not be a silver bullet, but it could be a start.

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