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Opinion 17 September 2020

The long journey toward diversity

BBVA’s Head of Diversity José Antonio Gallego reflects on some of the challenges facing diversity and inclusion with some historic examples of measures adopted in different social environments. The conclusions could serve the corporate world.

Although the battle to create more diverse and inclusive societies (fortunately) fills the headlines these days, it does not mean it is something new. There is a long history of efforts to give space to women and different kinds of minorities, and the results have not always been positive unfortunately.

(As an anecdote, the “bitter controversy” from several years ago involving historian Mary Beard and writer Nassim Taleb regarding whether or not the Roman empire was “inclusive” with people from other races.)

If I had to point to the most important historic initiatives in terms of diversity, I would say these two: India’s electoral quota model, which began in 1950 and remains in force today, as it reserves seats in the country’s parliament (and in various public institutions) for members of the most disadvantaged casts (you can find an analysis of the successes and failures of this ambitious endeavor in “Social Justice through Inclusion”); and the 1964 U.S. civil rights law,  which prohibited discrimination based on race, sex, religion or origin at companies, the government and schools.

This summer, an article in the New York Times by its classical music critic Anthony Tomassini opened a debate regarding one of the measures considered the most successful in diversity: blind auditions in the world of classical music, calling for their end in order to create more inclusive orchestras.

I will summarize this initiative, as it has many similarities with the corporate world. In 1969, two black musicians sued the New York Philharmonic for discrimination, maintaining that they had not been hired due to their race (at that time the philharmonic had only one black musician). Although the city’s human rights committee ruled against the plaintiffs, the case underscored the lack of transparency in the way musicians were hired, revealing different cases of cronyism. This led the orchestras at the time to be mainly comprised of white men.

Some of the measures adopted by the New York Philharmonic, which spread to the rest, included:

  1. Giving greater visibility to job offers that arise in the orchestra through the musician union so that more people could apply.
  2. Auditions for these vacancies would be “blind”: the musician plays behind a curtain so that those listening do not know his or her identity, sex or race.

The result? Economist Claudia Goldin, a pioneer in economic analysis of the gender gap, in collaboration with Cecilia Rouse published a document in the year 2000 analyzing the effects of blind auditions and concluded the following:

  • The percentage of women in the five main U.S. orchestras went from six percent in 1970 to 21 percent in 1993.
  • The implementation of ‘blind auditions’ was responsible for 33 percent of this increase, while the other 33 percent can be attributed to the increase in the number of women who signed up for the auditions due to the greater dissemination given to them.

Figures in hand, there is no question over the success of this initiative, which has been replicated in companies through measures like “blind CVs”.

One of the conclusions that can be drawn from this experience is that the limited representation of women in certain areas is not always due to reasons of misogyny, but to the fact that those who have decision-making power prefer to be surrounded by people similar to them, or to those with whom they have coincided in the past.  Giving more visibility to vacancies and establishing transparent decision-making processes helps to eliminate this inbreeding, giving space to candidates who otherwise would have never had a chance.

But the New York Times article mentioned above reveals the failure of blind auditions to integrate African American and Latino musicians in orchestras. According to a study published in 2014, just 1.8 percent of orchestra musicians were African Americans and 2.5 percent were Latinos (while the percentage of Asians was 9.1 percent).

What went wrong? The blind audition model supposedly fosters meritocracy. Are African Americans and Latinos worse musicians? I don’t know a lot about classical music, but as a lover of jazz I know that is not the problem. The readers’ comments on the article offer possible explanations: classical music is expensive, the instruments are expensive, elite training is very expensive, travel to auditions is expensive. A child from a family with limited financial resources, regardless of how talented he or she may be, will have a hard time triumphing in the world of classical music.

Interestingly, this same phenomenon of under-representation of African Americans and Latinos, and over-representation of Asians in relation to the population, also exists in the biggest tech companies like Apple, Google or Facebook. Something similar occurs in the current labor market: the signs that identify the best candidates are related to the university where they studied, having done an MBA, knowledge of languages or internships at prestigious institutions – activities that are directly tied to the family’s income level.

The author’s conclusion is to abandon the blind audition model, replacing it with a hiring model that reflects “the diversity of the communities being served”. In other words, affirmative action that attracts different talent to orchestras. From a human resources standpoint, it is no longer about selecting the musician who had the best audition, but about proactively looking for candidates in whom the musicians of tomorrow of any gender, race or color can see themselves represented, and forcing a diversification of today’s orchestras in a manner that is similar to what has been taking place in India since 1950, turning orchestras into active elements of change.

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