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U of Helsinki Tries Anonymized Academic Hiring

Pilot project seeks to eliminate bias.

December 20, 2018
 

Finland’s leading university is trying the use of anonymized applications for academic roles as part of a nationwide push toward greater equality in hiring practices.

The University of Helsinki confirmed that it was conducting two pilot programs focused on academic recruitment, in which applications were stripped of candidates’ names, dates of birth, ethnicities and genders.

Universities are increasingly experimenting with name-blind student recruitment, and advocates of its use in the hiring process argue that it could help to limit the impact of unconscious biases that penalize women and minorities.

However, there are questions over whether it could catch on in academic departments, in which recruitment decisions are closely tied to a researcher’s publication record and scholarly reputation.

Helsinki said that it had conducted previous trials of anonymized recruitment and that the latest pilots were designed to produce reliable data on the practice’s efficacy by early next year.

Emmi Tammiluoma, a human resources recruitment adviser at the university, said that it was “extremely important to educate our hiring professors, managers and supervisors in the questions of implicit bias.”

“We are also testing anonymous recruiting practices in some of our academic recruitments [and] will evaluate the need for extending these practices in the future based on the feedback,” she said.

Details of the university’s pilots emerged after Helsinki’s city board agreed to gradually introduce the practice across municipal roles starting in 2019. The neighboring city of Vantaa voted to introduce anonymous hiring earlier this year.

However, experts have warned against relying on such practices to eradicate unconscious bias.

Roger Seifert, professor of industrial relations at the University of Wolverhampton, in the U.K., said that while some experiments resulted in “slight improvement in the balance of those short-listed” for jobs, “it mainly applies to large organizations recruiting well-educated white-collar staff in the finance and management sectors.”

Introducing anonymization risks costing more in time and effort as recruiters attempt to guess the identity of applicants, particularly in the intimate circles of academia, Seifert added.

“Over all [it’s] a nonstarter in my view, and another example of minor administrative measures used to cover up deeper problems of prejudice in the sector,” he said.

Gregor Gall, affiliate research associate in economic and social history at the University of Glasgow, also in the U.K., agreed that anonymized hiring in academia was impractical “because candidates will find it difficult to anonymize their work -- especially if it is sole authored -- and much of any candidate’s strength of their application will be based on published work, which is publicly traceable.”

“Even if candidates make it to interview as a result of anonymous recruitment, they may still suffer from the very same bias and discrimination … from selection panels,” he concluded.

But Pia Pakarinen, Helsinki’s deputy mayor for education, said that she expected anonymous hiring to catch on, including in universities.

“It is important to remove personal details about applicants if we want to improve diversity and fairness,” she said. “Once Helsinki tries something like this, the rest of the country usually follows.”

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