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margaret wente

Unconscious bias is the invisible enemy of workplace diversity. So goes the conventional wisdom. Unconscious bias explains why the higher echelons of government and business are still so pale and male. It explains why women are still so woefully shortchanged in STEM jobs (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). It explains why we need to move even more aggressively to recruit women and minorities – as federal Science Minster Kirsty Duncan, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, and countless other progressive leaders believe.

Unconscious bias is not a myth. Take the case of orchestra musicians, who used to be overwhelmingly male. When symphony orchestras moved to blind auditions – having candidates play behind a screen – the number of women who won spots shot up. Research also shows that many job recruiters favour Anglo-Saxon-sounding names on résumés over ethnic ones, even if the résumés are identical.

To tackle these problems, the federal government has launched a pilot project using name-blind recruitment for public-service jobs. It hopes the result will be a work force that is more diverse.

Opinion: Science is still sexist. I know this from my own experience

Australia did this too. Twenty-one hundred civil servants were asked to assess hypothetical candidates for senior jobs. Half the résumés had identifying information, and half did not. But the results were a shock. Blind hiring made things worse. It turns out that when recruiters had identifying information, they actively discriminated in favour of women and minorities – just as they'd done all along.

"Participants were 2.9 per cent more likely to shortlist female candidates and 3.2 per cent less likely to shortlist male applicants when they were identifiable," the researchers said. "Minority males were 5.8 per cent more likely to be shortlisted and minority females were 8.6 per cent more likely to be shortlisted. … The positive discrimination was strongest for Indigenous female candidates who were 22.2 per cent more likely to be shortlisted."

"We anticipated this would have a positive impact on diversity," Michael Hiscox, the Harvard academic who oversaw the project, said sheepishly. "We found the opposite." He recommended that the experiment be put on hold.

Privately, plenty of people in government and academia will tell you that hiring bias now favours women, especially in male-dominated fields. In France, researchers found, female applicants for teaching jobs in math and physics at all levels are now preferred over men. (Conversely, men have a slight edge in traditionally feminine fields such as literature.) What's going on? The researchers concluded that the examiners are probably trying to counteract gender stereotypes.

In another famous (and hotly controversial) study, psychologists Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams submitted hundreds of résumés from hypothetical candidates applying for tenure-track positions in STEM fields. They found that the women were favoured by a ratio of 2 to 1.

No one would argue that gender discrimination does not exist. But maybe it isn't the monster problem some folks think it is. And maybe twisting ourselves into pretzels to erase imaginary biases in hiring is a poor idea.

Let's strongly encourage young women to go into science. But let's also entertain the notion that gender gaps in STEM are likely to persist – and that's okay! Let's consider the possibility that the gender gap doesn't really have very much to do with negative social messages, unconscious bias or gender stereotyping. Maybe it has to do with the fact that a lot of girls like other things more – even girls with strong math skills.

In an age when we're supposed to believe that culture explains everything, this a heretical opinion. Unfortunately, it's grounded in sound science. Social psychologist Lee Jussim, writing in Psychology Today, points out that gender differences in interests are well established in the research. There's more. Far more girls than boys are strong in both math and verbal skills.

By contrast, far more boys are strong in math alone. People who are strong in both areas are less likely to pursue STEM careers. In other words, girls have far broader options and far more interest in working with people than boys do. Thus, the gap.

So here's an idea. Before we try to fix biases in hiring, maybe we should ask if we really have a problem. Then let's try not to make it worse.