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Affirmative Action for Women in Mathematics: Fighting Discrimination with Discrimination?

The University of Melbourne (the most prestigious university in my hometown) has advertised three senior positions in mathematics. Like some (but not all) other STEM subjects, mathematics has a low proportion of female academics. In part, this is a pipeline problem: women are significantly less likely to do mathematics degrees than men (28% of maths students at Melbourne are female). The head of the school of mathematics and statistics at the university hopes that the appointments might help by fixing the leaking pipeline: the three appointments will provide role models and mentors for female students and might encourage more of them to enrol, finish and go on to higher degrees.

In many ways, it might be preferable to fix the problem by hiring women who outcompete men for positions open to all. But with fewer applicants, change would be – has been – slow through that approach. Moreover, even when everyone acts with a good will (most do, I suspect, but not all), implicit bias may lead to biased hiring practices. Implicit bias is not as powerful as some think. It is unlikely to lead to a man being appointed over a clearly better qualified woman. But when applicants are all more or less equally qualified (as they typically are when a final decision is being made between the top 4 or 5 candidates), a small effect may make a decisive difference, and a very slight bias in favour of men may lead to a large disparity.

So there are justifications for this kind of approach. Nevertheless, many people are uncomfortable with this kind of policy. How powerful are the worries?

The first worry mentioned by many people is that the women will be seen as token appointments and that therefore they will not receive any respect. There are two worries here, I think. First, the concern might be for (or at any rate expressed in terms of concern for) the women themselves. They might struggle to gain the respect of their colleagues because they were appointed through a procedure that was not open to all. I am not much moved by this worry. It’s not that I don’t think that they might encounter disrespect; it’s more the fact that this won’t really distinguish them from other women, however they are appointed. In the contemporary university, publications and grants are highly valued: if the appointees are able to secure these things, then respect will follow.

The second worry is related: might the appointments fail to secure the goal of fixing the leaky pipeline because of the way the women were appointed? That is, might women fail to regard them as role models because they see them as not being there on merit? This is more serious a worry, I think. However, it will be minimized if the appointments are good ones. If the three new hires publish well and secure grants, they will secure the respect not only of colleagues but also of higher degree students. Undergraduates will probably be oblivious, but then they will probably be oblivious with regard to how their lecturers were appointed in any case.

Another worry is that the process is unjust to men. It might be motivated by the laudable goal of addressing discrimination against women, but achieves it by discriminating against men, thereby echoing the very injustice it is designed to eradicate.

I am not moved by this worry. There are few or no applicants for academic jobs who are owed them as a matter of justice, and those few (if they exist) are owed a job, not this particular job. To be owed a job, in the sense I have in mind, is to be so well-qualified that it infringes meritocratic justice to fail to give you one. You are owed a job if you are so well-qualified compared to other applicants that you merit one; it would be unjust to hire someone else. That’s not what the academic market looks like: rather than being a few qualified candidates who merit jobs, on this comparative criterion, there are many candidates who could reasonably be appointed. It’s more like a lottery with a really high bar for entry than a straight contest on merit. So the men who miss out won’t have been treated any more unjustly than they could expect given an open competition, and with regard to those men who might have been appointed but will not, it will be true that their appointment would have caused others who are equally well-qualified to miss out (I am sympathetic to the idea that the academic job market treats everyone who misses out unfairly, but that’s another story, and the causes have nothing much to do with gender).

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2 Comment on this post

  1. I am confused by your treatment of the final worry.
    I doubt anyone would argue that the process described is unjust because potential male applicants are “owed a job” as a matter of justice. Rather, the (or at least MY) concern would be that potential male applicants are owed “not being discriminated against because of their gender” as a matter of justice.
    It is not unjust for there to be a job opening, and a qualified woman be selected for it, resulting in a qualified man not getting a job.
    What is unjust is that there is a job opening, and men are disqualified from consideration for it on the basis of their gender.

    I guess I’m arguing that your assertion “So the men who miss out won’t have been treated any more unjustly than they could expect given an open competition” is just prima facie inaccurate, to a “2+2=5” degree.

  2. The left, in particular academics, are allergic to biological hypotheses of male-female differences, even though they seem plausible to explain universal statistical differences between men’s and women’s interests and role in societies. The reaction to anyone suggesting otherwise is so hostile that debate is silenced (see Larry Summers). If there’s no real interest in the facts however unpalatable, affirmative action to redress male-female balance may not have the intended benefits, and will anyway always be selective and politically applied. Academics and software engineers are punished and interfered with for being male dominated, but garbage collectors and other blue collar workers aren’t, nor are primary teachers for being female dominated.

    I support affirmative action for careers where democratic representation is more important than talent, namely politicians, the police and possibly journalists and the media. Nobody can pretend these careers are filled on merit anyway, and women and ethnic minorities deserve to be represented fairly, and should not feel the government, justice system and fourth estate are stacked against them.

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