What a Philharmonic Can Teach Us About Leveling a Power Dynamic

In the wake of the Google Manifesto, my company pulled together a diversity panel to head an open discussion for all interested employees. I took my seat, alongside 50 or so men and a handful of women, and glanced up at the panel, they’re all women. The discussion started with a brutal attack from one of the panel members, labeling the manifesto “sexist trash.” It felt like the air in the room shifted from a genuine curiosity and the desire to understand to a submissive dejection by everyone who wasn’t in violent agreement with that label.

The observation I should have vocalized that day but didn’t:

“There are only women on this panel.”

Why didn’t I say anything? Surely the power dynamic was turned on it’s head that day, with 4 female panel members at the front and another female as our facilitator. Why wasn’t I comfortable objecting to what they were saying? Was that ok?

I’ve only recently come into contact with the concept of a power dynamic. And I realize now, why my stomach twisted itself into knots that day. It’s because we flipped the existing power dynamic (in our case it was the male-female dynamic) instead of leveling it out. I see this on twitter so often. In one case, a woman witnessed marginalized groups in the tech industry, and I picked up on a tone of blame, white men being seen as the “cause” of the issues we’re seeing (the story I’m telling myself - separate from the author’s intent). I was filled with the same immediate, visceral reaction to these tweets as I did in that diversity panel. I’m not saying that these groups aren’t marginalized. I’m not saying that the woman made invalid arguments. What I am saying, is that there might be a better way to react to an imbalance of power.

How does one “level” a power dynamic?

In June of 1980, the Munich Philharmonic held a blind trombonist audition in order to prevent bias from nepotism - one of the potential new hires was the nephew of a member of the audition’s jury. The jury was separated from the person auditioning by a mesh screen. When all was said and done, they picked a woman - unheard of - especially at that time, especially in Germany, especially for a trombonist. With the invention of the blind audition, jurors came to realize they had a certain amount of bias when it came to evaluating music, not limited to gender and ethnicity, but even down to the way the mouthpiece fit in the person’s mouth or the posture of the person playing. Musicians all over the world realized a problem, and fixed it with a mesh screen.

The solution was immediate, and it was born of an objective observation: humans have bias, some of which is extremely hard to self-identify and mitigate. By contrast, no one’s opening argument was that white men were ruining the orchestra (aloud anyway). There does exist a long-term approach where we all become aware of our bias, become students of bias, and overcome it. It is an important thing to prioritize as individuals. It is also something that will take time. So what can we - in the software community - do immediately?

Software’s “Blind Audition”

I’ve been toying with the idea of a “blind audition” for software developers. Companies can still grab a booth at job fairs and developer conferences for recruiting and networking. The difference would be that we wouldn’t take any applications, CVs, or resumes. Instead, give ‘em a link! Applying for a job online shouldn’t be hard. We can generate an id or an alias for each applicant in order to redact any information that might bias a hiring jury. I like using an alias because I’m a hacker, and it also steers us away from the first impression: you’re just a number to us. Ok so we’ve eliminated the applicant’s name, gender, ethicity. But what other bias might we have? Education? Is that fair? Should we be descriminating against a developer who hasn’t been to college? Maybe the entire application is a code kata. If the hiring jury is impressed with your solution, you get an interview.

Ah! So we’re back to a face-to-face. We’re re-introducing the opportunity for bias, only further down the pipeline. It’s not great but it’s an iteration towards providing more opportunities for marginalized groups. Can our onsite interview be behind a screen? It wouldn’t be super helpful in addressing gender bias, but it would certainly help with ethnicity/ability/sexuality/education/class bias. So what do we ask the person behind the screen? We probably shouldn’t undo all of the benfit of not knowing the demographics of the applicant. Maybe we start asking results-based questions? Afterall, isn’t delivering pieces of value to customers the only thing that matters in software development anyway? We can turn “I see your GPA was a 2.0. Explain yourself.” into “Brag about a thing you’ve built recently that you’re extremely proud of.”

Can we go a step further? What about instead of an onsite technical interview, we have an all day remote pairing session with a current employee? This would certainly demonstrate our ability to work with others while masking any visual biases we may have.

Afterward: The concept of diversity of thought

I understand diversity of thought to be something different from what many people think of when we talk about capital-D-diversity. It’s the difference between “Oh! We need your ethnicity here!” and “Oh! We need the benefit of your experiences here because they’re so different from anything any of us have experienced!” While experiences are definitely influenced by cultural background, this distinction completely abandons the idea that filling a minority quota is diversity. Instead it unifies us as a population of experiences, and challenges us as hire-ers to choose as many different experiences as we can to make up our company. To me, this idea is the most leveling.

“Diversity of thought goes beyond the affirmation of equality — simply recognizing differences and responding to them,” states a 2013 study by Deloitte Consulting. “Instead, the focus is on realizing the full potential of people, and in turn the organization, by acknowledging and appreciating the potential promise of each person’s unique perspective and different way of thinking.”

Diversity of Thought by Ruchika Tulshyan

Written on May 14, 2018