Imagine for a moment the tens of thousands of sensations that bombard your conscious mind daily: that which you see, both moving and still, its color, detail and depth; what you hear, pitch, volume, perhaps words; touch, smell and taste. Your brain can process and sift all that information with minimal conscious attention, all while you’re walking down the street, sipping a coffee and reading texts on your smartphone. How does the brain process so much input all at once?
According to Jerry Kang, professor of law at UCLA and author of Implicit Bias: A Primer for Courts, it does so by creating schemas, or templates of knowledge, that organize specific examples into broader categories. These ‘mental shortcuts’ allow us to recognize an object with a flat seat, a back, and legs as a chair, regardless of its size, color, or the materials from which it is made. Without expending valuable mental resources, we simply sit. We create schemas not only for objects but for processes as well. Once we have learned to walk, drive a car, or pour a glass of water, we are able to do so automatically, without conscious direction. These are implicit cognitions, actions taken without conscious thought. (implicit: essentially or very closely connected with; always to be found in. Latin: implicatus ‘entwined’.)
By the same process that our brain creates implicit cognitions to effortlessly walk or drive, we also create implicit social cognitions that assign people into various categories according to conspicuous, accessible traits, such as age, gender, and race. These social categories guide our thinking and attitudes—for example, you might expect an elderly person to be frail and hence not raise your guard on their approach. Conversely, you might think they need help getting up the stairs. Some of these schemas are created through real-world encounters, but most are relayed to us subliminally through vicarious means: the families, friends and culture we grew up with, stories, media, and books. If we examine these social cognitions more closely, we see they include both stereotypes—traits that we associate with certain categories—and attitudes, which are general, evaluative feelings that could be either positive or negative. The term implicit bias includes both implicit stereotypes and implicit attitudes.
In their book, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, authors Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald turn the conventional way people think about bias on its head. It is not overt prejudice, springing from animosity and hatred, but unintentional and unacknowledged biases that may influence relationships and hiring practices. The two psychologists have revolutionized the study of this unrealized bias with their Implicit Association Test (IAT), which measures the speed of people’s hidden associations. The IAT is designed to examine which words and concepts are strongly paired in people’s minds. As an example, ‘lightning’ is more readily paired with ‘thunder’ than with ‘horses’. Connecting concepts that the mind perceives as incompatible takes extra time. That time difference can be quantified and, Banaji and Greenwald argue, is an objective measure of people’s implicit attitudes. By asking participants to pair, as quickly as possible, positive and negative words with race and gender as part of the mix, the IAT can highlight these unconscious preferences.
So how might implicit bias effect our orchestral workplace?
Understanding that we all unconsciously carry bias is the first step in dismantling the often uncomfortable and defensive attitudes that accompany this realization. It is not a judgment on our individual character but the underlying thumbprint of the culture in which we were raised. Our workplace is a highly structured social system that seems to come with prepackaged attitudes. From the musicians’ perspective, musicians are good, management is bad, and the music director is often problematic. One might have had reliable, real-world experience that engenders a negative bias towards management. Or, it may be that one has unconsciously adopted the implicit bias that “management is devious”. In either case, being fully aware that the bias exists—not implicitly, but openly and accurately identified for what it is—goes a long way towards ameliorating conflict when it arises.
Obviously, our audition and tenure processes are another potential area for implicit bias. As we have experienced, the introduction of screens to the audition process greatly increased gender diversity. (It is worth noting that female principal players are still very much in the minority. Monetary compensation is another discussion….) But the use of screens has hardly moved the needle on racial diversity. Why is that? The oft-quoted answer is that candidates of color do not advance past the résumé screening or the initial rounds of screened live auditions—they are not there to be hired. That may or may not be true, but we have NO data to prove or disprove that assumption.
Shea Scruggs, former oboist with the Baltimore Symphony and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, is now a consultant working with companies to build mission- and data-driven projects that increase diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). In his view, “lack of data is one of the first challenges to tackle. A data-driven understanding of an organization’s current position lays the groundwork for progress, not just for one organization, but for the entire field.” Tracking data about hiring and retention is the first step towards assessing and improving our current practices. We should be keeping track of who applies, who is invited, who auditions, and who gets tenure.
Scruggs, along with Weston Sprott, trombonist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, has been working for a number of years to promote DEI in the orchestral field. Sprott said, “It is impossible to separate what you hear from what you see.” For proof positive, check out the McGurk Effect, a video integration of speech and sight. That which your eye sees simply overrides what your ear hears. I challenge you to “hear” it otherwise!
The MET Orchestra has the longest standing practice of fully screened auditions from amongst our ICSOM orchestras. They allow any applicant to play—regardless of name, position, or past experience. Résumés are not distributed during the audition process and there is no discussion of candidates during any round of the audition, voting only. Their audition panels comprise members of the relevant and neighboring sections. The Music Director only gets one vote, and his/her vote is weighed no differently than that of anyone else. “I believe the presence of the screen from start to finish in our process has impacted diversity and inclusion in our orchestra,” said Sprott. “In recent history, the MET Orchestra hired three African-Americans over a two-year period and had a majority (five out of nine) female French horn section. These hires were all the result of a completely screened audition process.”
No discussion of audition policies can be comprehensive without open acknowledgment of the elephant in the room. The Music Director has an outsize influence on both hiring and tenure review in most of our orchestras. In some, they are entirely in control, with musicians in a purely advisory role. As our audition processes evolve with more invited candidates to the final rounds and trial weeks beyond the “cattle call”, there needs to be accountability on the part of a Music Director in whom they chose to invite and how tenure decisions are made. Music Directors must be included in any discussion of a more inclusive audition process and be an active part in changing our culture.
Whatever decisions we may make as individual orchestras, the first step to a more inclusive culture is understanding who we are right now and overcoming the “status quo bias”. Conducting our business “the way it’s always been done” is passively endorsing the inequity and lack of diversity that is now prevalent. If we are serious about making changes in regard to DEI, and I strongly believe we must, we need to commit time, thought, and resources towards understanding who we are and what we hope to represent. Our demographic composition sends a powerful message to our audiences, donors and everyone who works, or might hope to work someday, with our orchestras.
We, the musicians of ICSOM, have powerful tools at hand to create change. With our union-negotiated collective bargaining agreements, we can determine, in conjunction with management, how our audition and tenure process is run. Cultivating honest and tolerant relationships in-house will go a long way towards creating a culture that is not only diverse and inclusive of our society but of each other—Music Directors included.
Note: The author is ICSOM Chairperson.
See additional references:
Jerry Kang, Implicit Bias: A Primer for Courts (Prepared for the National Campaign to Ensure the Racial and Ethnic Fairness of America’s State Courts, 2009), http://jerrykang.net/research/2009-implicit-bias-primer-for-courts/.
Shankar Vedantam, “See No Bias,” Washington Post, January 23, 2005, W12, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A27067-2005Jan21.html.
Shea Scruggs and Weston Sprott, “Finding a New Path Forward: Five useful concepts for a more diverse and inclusive orchestra,” Allegro, January 2018, https://www.local802afm.org/allegro/articles/finding-a-new-path-forward/.