A report from the Prime Minister’s behavioural economics team warns ‘blind recruitment’ could see fewer women in top jobs.

‘Blind recruitment’ describes techniques designed to eliminate unconscious bias in hiring processes by removing names and other identifying data from applications.

The techniques are being trialled or used across the public service, and have been credited with doubling the proportion of female bosses at the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

A new study from Malcolm Turnbull's Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet ‘nudge unit’ testing blind recruitment using 2100 public servants from 14 departments, who were asked to assess applications for a hypothetical senior role in their organisation.

The assessors were randomly assigned either traditional or ‘blind’ applications (with key identifiers removed).

The study found that blind recruitment appeared to remove a small bias towards women.

“Participants were 2.9 per cent more likely to shortlist female candidates and 3.2 per cent less likely to shortlist male applicants when they were identifiable, compared with when they were de-identified,” the study says.

“Minority males were 5.8 per cent more likely to be shortlisted and minority females were 8.6 per cent more likely to be shortlisted when identifiable compared to when applications were de-identified.

“The positive discrimination was strongest for Indigenous female candidates who were 22.2 per cent more likely to be shortlisted when identifiable compared to when the applications were de-identified.”

Study leader Michael Hiscox says it is “critically useful knowledge”.

“Introducing de-identification of applications in such a context may have the unintended consequence of decreasing the number of female and minority candidates shortlisted for senior APS positions, setting back efforts to promote more diversity at the senior management levels in the public service,” he wrote.

“It does not imply that the APS has solved the problem of gender equality at the executive levels and higher – or lack of diversity more generally – but it tells us that rather than putting the focus on bias in initial reviews of job applicants, it may be more valuable to direct attention to other stages of recruitment.

“Overall, the results indicate the need for caution when moving towards 'blind' recruitment processes in the Australian Public Service, as de-identification may frustrate efforts aimed at promoting diversity.”

The Australian Public Service is more gender diverse than many other sectors, with women comprising about 59 per cent of the APS, but under 49 per cent of its executive level officers and only 43 of its top level Senior Executive Service.