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Contact: Mary Caffrey 609/258-5748
Date: April 25, 1997

Princeton Economist Finds that
Auditioning Behind Screens Helps
Women Win Orchestra Positions

Princeton, N.J. -- The practice of placing a screen in front of musicians auditioning for openings in symphony orchestras has contributed to the increase in the number of women who have secured these coveted positions, a Princeton economist has found.

Cecilia Rouse, assistant professor of economics and public affairs, used personnel records and rosters from several symphony orchestras to track the hiring of women musicians as orchestras adopted the practice of "blind" auditions during the 1970s and 1980s. While the use of screens in the final round is still uncommon, Rouse and Harvard Professor Claudia Goldin report that the use of screens in preliminary rounds, now a widespread practice, accounts for much of the success of women in winning orchestra slots in the past 25 years.

"The switch to blind auditions can explain between 30 percent and 55 percent of the increase in the proportion female among new hires and between 25 percent and 46 percent of the increase in the percentage female in the orchestras from 1970 to 1996," the economists write. The study notes that the surge of women in symphony orchestras has occured despite the fact that the number of positions is highly fixed and turnover is slow.

The study found that the practice of "blind" auditions increased by 50 percent the probability that women would advance out of certain preliminary rounds. "The screen also enhances, by severalfold, the likelihood that a female contestant will be the winner in the final round," the economists write.

"Blind" auditions for orchestra slots offered researchers a unique opportunity to study the hiring discrimination against women, Rouse said. First, discrimination against women seeking orchestra positions in the 1960s and 1970s was well-documented. Rouse and Goldin cite statements by famous conductors that women "have smaller techniques than men" and are more "temperamental." In their paper, the economists write, "We know that in the era (say before 1970) when just a few orchestras used the 'screen' for the preliminary round, just 10 percent of the new hires were women."

Second, unlike a traditional office setting, symphony orchestras have roughly 100 members and do not dramatically increase or decrease over time. Finally, the introduction of a screen, along with efforts to conceal an applicant's identity, made it possible to filter out factors like experience or education that can be cited when female applicants are not successful.

The lack of women in orchestras before the 1970s was probably not due to poor training, according to Rouse. "Women have always been trained alongside their brothers," she says. In earlier generations, highly accomplished female musicians ended up becoming teachers.

In her study, Rouse was able to show that "blind" auditions helped female applicants after controlling for ability. To do this, she examined the musicians' performances at several auditions, both screened and non-screened. This kind of access to hiring records is unusual. While longitudinal studies often track a given person's ability to obtain jobs over time, the opportunity to know the fate of every other competing applicant "is extremely rare," Rouse said.

Rouse, who studied under Goldin at Harvard, decided to study the effects of "blind" auditions after Goldin noticed a "throwaway line" in another paper about the increase of women in orchestras once screens were adopted. For Rouse, the project offered an opportunity to tap her longtime interest in music. "I've played the flute for years," she said.