Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Flying blind

I guess unconscious bias is only a bad thing if it operates in the expected direction. This one's a couple months old now, but I'd missed it at the time
A measure aimed at boosting female employment in the workforce may actually be making it worse, a major study has found.

Leaders of the Australian public service will today be told to "hit pause" on blind recruitment trials, which many believed would increase the number of women in senior positions.
...
Professor Michael Hiscox, a Harvard academic who oversaw the trial, said he was shocked by the results and has urged caution.

"We anticipated this would have a positive impact on diversity — making it more likely that female candidates and those from ethnic minorities are selected for the shortlist," he said.

"We found the opposite, that de-identifying candidates reduced the likelihood of women being selected for the shortlist."

The trial found assigning a male name to a candidate made them 3.2 per cent less likely to get a job interview.

Adding a woman's name to a CV made the candidate 2.9 per cent more likely to get a foot in the door.

"We should hit pause and be very cautious about introducing this as a way of improving diversity, as it can have the opposite effect," Professor Hiscox said.
I suppose unconscious bias is one-way bad if the goal is diversity rather than just hiring the best applicant. The full report from Australia is here.

Meanwhile, over at the New Zealand Treasury, blinding the applications gave Treasury something that they thought worth celebrating. They're even getting an award for it.
To increase the diversity of its workforce, Treasury reformed its graduate recruitment process to reduce unconscious bias and expand the skills, experiences and qualifications it valued. Opening Our Eyes Through Blind Recruitment won the Improving Diversity and Inclusiveness in the Public Sector award.

Through the introduction of blind applications, which redacts personal information such as name, gender, location and school attended, Treasury's graduate intake now has a majority from mixed ethnic backgrounds, a 50/50 gender representation and none have solely economics qualifications.

This seminar will provide further details about this important public sector recruitment initiative.
I expect that blinding on schools means the secondary school attended rather than the university attended. If it were blinding the attended university, that would not be good.

Emphasis added on the part that worries me.

If serious economics graduates stop seeing Treasury as a place they might want to work, that could be a difficult problem to undo - and it would have substantial longer term implications.

I'd heard last year that Canterbury's economics grads had given up on Treasury as being any kind of place for serious economists to go for work. A student there had emailed me asking about options at Treasury, and I'd advised that the best route was to talk with students at Canty in Honours who'd done the Treasury internship over the prior summer - to get a feel for the place.

Turned out that the Canterbury students had stopped applying for that internship and none had gone the prior summer. It seemed like Treasury's recruitment team that went out to the universities overshot ... a lot... in emphasizing how open they were to non-econ grads; the econ students took the signal and went where they thought they were wanted.

I'd hoped that Treasury was working to change that impression.

I understand that RBNZ is seen is the place for serious economics students to go, where previously RBNZ and Treasury were always in a race for our best students. The ranking used to be RBNZ and Treasury had pick of the litter, putting out job offers even before students started their Honours or MCom year. Other departments waited until RBNZ/Treasury finished their recruitment, since nobody would accept an offer if either of those were still outstanding.

Double-degree students can be fantastic. Law & Economics is a great combination. There are seriously good math & economics double-degree students. And Economics has always paired well with Philosophy, either as a double or as a PPE degree. Heck, my undergrad was double-honours Economics & Political Studies.

But if Treasury were starting to have trouble in convincing serious econ grads that they were really interested in hiring economists, celebrating not hiring any single-major economists in the latest recruitment round isn't the most obvious play.

And I wonder whether this hiring outcome is because of their new blinded recruitment system, or because they've successfully convinced the serious econ majors that Treasury analysts get to play with the Hexagon of Happiness while RBNZ analysts get to do real economics.

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