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Lotteries are the fairest route to prejudice-free hiring

Written by: Nathan Burke
Published on: 4 Feb 2022

Electoral Commission staff allocate positions on a ballot paper to illustrate Lotteries offer fair hiring

Source: Getty (Edited)

Lotteries have an unfairly bad name. When someone says that “it is a lottery” who gets a particular job, they mean that the selection is unlikely to be made on merit and is therefore unfair. And in many real-world scenarios, they would be right to voice such a doubt; ability is rarely the sole driver of appointment decisions. But what if lotteries were the least bad solution? Members of a selection committee don’t have to be overtly sexist to unfairly discriminate against female candidates, for instance. They just have to unconsciously associate men with competency and leadership (positive bias) or women with motherhood and disruption (negative bias). Academia is by no means free from this problem.

Clearly, then, eliminating the influence of unconscious bias is an important part of building greater equity in academia. Lotteries could be one way to do it. After all, lotteries are characterised by every participant having a genuinely equal chance of winning. That is why the ancient Athenians used them to decide which citizens would serve as magistrates. It is why medieval Italian city states used them to appoint public officials and leaders. And it is why, in many countries, lotteries are still used to decide who serves on juries in criminal trials.

But what about the fairness objection? If Lady Luck were to smile on a manifestly unqualified candidate, would that be fair? Would that serve anyone’s interests?

It would not. But this scenario could be avoided by confining shortlists to those applicants who meet the requirements for the position. That way, meritocracy is retained, except the merit lies in being shortlisted, not in getting the job.

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For many, this reframing of merit still chafes against the belief that the very best candidate should get the job. But it’s important to remember that under current hiring practices, the “best” applicant is judged subjectively by people with unconscious biases. Lotteries prevent the influence of these biases.

Of course, if a lottery-based approach to recruitment were adopted, hiring teams would need to pay careful attention to the shortlisting process. Random selection can only give an unbiased outcome if the sampling pool is unbiased, so the shortlist would also need to be bias-free. This could be achieved by instituting equity or diversity standards for shortlisting, such as ensuring that half the shortlisted applicants were women. This would guarantee equal odds of a man or woman getting the job.

But how would this provision work in fields where applicants tend to be mostly men or mostly women? In this case, the size of the shortlist would need to be constrained by the limiting gender. For example, if a hiring team wanted to create a 10-person shortlist but the low number of female applicants meant that only two women would make the cut – along with, say, eight men – then the final shortlist could be reduced to four applicants: the two women and the best two men.

An alternative way to achieve gender equity in appointments would be to embrace positive discrimination and only hire the best female applicants for open roles until their numbers in the workforce equal those of men. Some universities have adopted this approach to try to rapidly correct sex bias. A lottery works towards the same end – albeit half as fast – but with a greater sense of fairness to all applicants.

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If lottery hiring could finally balance the scales in academia for women and minorities, the effects could be far-reaching. If you know a position will be decided by lottery, you might be more likely to apply, which could be particularly encouraging for under-represented groups. It’s also likely that when chance decides your fate, repeated failure isn’t so difficult to bear. If you don’t get the job, it’s just bad luck – it’s not because of who you are, or who someone unconsciously thinks you are. Such a shift could help to foster a fairer and more collegial academic culture.

As a postdoc who happens to be male and white, I desperately want a level playing field. I want to be confident that my career achievements are not just the consequence of some hiring committee’s unconscious biases. It’s egregiously unfair that the odds have been stacked in favour of people like me for so long, and it needs to change. Hiring-by-lottery could be our ticket to genuine equality of opportunity.

Nathan Burke is Alexander von Humboldt postdoctoral research fellow in the Institute of Zoology at the University of Hamburg.