Zubin Mehta, conductor of the Los Angeles Symphony from 1964 to 1978 and of the New York Philharmonic from 1978 to 1990, is credited with saying, “I just don’t think women should be in an orchestra.” In 1970, the top five orchestras in the U.S. had fewer than 5% female musicians and this number gradually increased over years reaching on average 25-30%. So, what was the source of this change?
Well, blinding seems to be one of the factors!
In the 1970s and 1980s, orchestras began using blind auditions. Candidates and jury members were separated by a curtain in a way that they could not see each other. This blinding process was found to account for at least 30% of the increase in the female proportion of “new hires“ at major symphony orchestras in the US (see Figure below, modified from Goldin & Rouse (2000) American Economic Rev 90: 715).
By the way, the first blinded auditions provided an astonishing result: men were still favoured over women!
It was later discovered that screens kept juries from seeing the candidates move into position, but the sound of the women’s heels when entering the music stage unknowingly influenced the jury. Once the musicians removed their shoes, almost 50% of the women made it past the first audition.