Wednesday, September 4, 2013

On reverse discrimination

Ed Bertschinger recently wrote an about his recent encounter with a response to the charge of “reverse discrimination.” It really struck a chord for me because I used to be “that guy” who would point to reverse discrimination as part of my general (uninformed) stance against affirmative action. More recently I’ve learned how wrong I was to take such a position. I'd like to take this space to explain my new way of thinking.

First, think about why discrimination exists and how it works in practice. Discrimination is a tool used by those in power to consolidate and preserve power by excluding others based on arbitrary distinctions such as race, sexual orientation or gender. By designating a portion of the population as “lesser” and “separate,” groups in power can very effectively reduce the size of the competitive pool, making it easy to e.g., win funding and get jobs. This can be done explicitly, but fortunately it’s rare these days. 

More often than not discrimination takes the form of an institutionalized structure left over from the past with little incentive for people who benefit from it to change, or implemented (poorly) in pursuit of other goals. However, implementing these arbitrary delineations for the benefit of the few requires an important ingredient, namely power. Thus for reverse discrimination to occur from, say, women toward men, we’d need an institutional structure with a powerful female faction who have the power to suppress male involvement.

So, do we have this reversal in astronomy when it comes to gender? From the standpoint of women: far from it. If such a situation existed, even locally, one could point to the departments with long histories of female majorities among their student bodies, postdoc population and faculty. One could go to such a department and browse the walls covered with black-and-white photos showing the long line of female department chairs dating back to the early 20th century. Or a department with more than 50% women on the faculty. With the exceptions of a few women's colleges, no such department exists. Is it because women intrinsically lack leadership skills and scientific acumen? Of course not. Rather, women were not allowed on the faculty of---indeed, were not even allowed to study at---most major astronomy departments until relatively recently. Now that women make up 30% of astronomy PhD students, they still face barriers in academia due to things like unconscious bias, family-unfriendly institutional policies and sexual harassment. Thus, I think anyone crying “reverse discrimination!” is neglecting an important historical fact: white males have enjoyed affirmative action for hundreds of years in society in general, and science in particular. 

Perhaps an analogy is in order. If you were running a marathon in which all people born in March were forced to start 10 minutes behind the other runners, it wouldn’t make sense to complain that you, as someone born in January, were somehow discriminated against because the March-birthday runner was  granted a time correction. “I didn’t get a time correction! I had to run the full race and have my final time submitted with no correction. This is reverse discrimination on the basis of birth date!” Of course, such an argument would be absurd. It just wouldn’t make sense to ignore the history of what happened at the beginning of the marathon while criticizing the corrective measures of the present.

Similarly, men have been granted a giant head-start throughout our nation’s entire history---indeed, the entire history of Western civilization and beyond. That advantage was passed forward to subsequent generations of men over the years and preserved through explicit banishment of women, and more recently through unconscious bias. And while not all men today are direct heirs of this legacy, one cannot with a straight face say that men are disadvantaged because of their gender, especially not in astronomy and physics (I'll admit it, I have most certainly benefitted from male advantage during my career). If you disagree, please point me to the astronomy department with all the women professors who, consciously or unconsciously, bar men from admission and employment.

What about the notion of a meritocracy? Aren’t we today just as wrong as those in the past if we use race and gender as criteria for selection? Doesn’t affirmative action just perpetuate race-, sexuality- and gender-based discrimination? But note that it was not the minority groups who chose these characteristics as criteria in the first place. Minorities didn’t set the "rules of the game," but we do encounter the rules daily. Those rules were written by the majority groups long ago. So how would it be possible to suddenly change hundreds of years of tradition overnight and suddenly have a meritocracy? People who were raised and educated in a male-dominated society are naturally going to operate within the rules of such a society, even if laws are rewritten.

Going back to the marathon analogy, recall that a March birth date was arbitrarily chosen at the outset of the race as a criterion for when various runners started, placing some runners at a significant advantage. Would it be fair to cry out in the middle of the race that speed should be the only way to select the winner? When it comes to race and gender, we’re in the middle of the marathon right now that started at the dawn of science. There was no sudden reset after the women’s and civil rights movement of decades past. There is only a gradual progressive trend (thankfully!) which needs to be helped along by corrective actions. The arbitrary distinctions based on race and gender were set in stone by our forefathers (with emphasis on “fathers”). No proper correction can be made without consideration of those arbitrary criteria that govern the marathon that we’re all currently running.

But this is not to say that there’s no end. Should the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy continue forever? I don’t think so. Similarly, affirmative action should be put in place with a clear goal in mind. Affirmative action is a corrective measure, and it should be removed once the correction has been achieved. Once there exist a number of astronomy departments with equivalent numbers of men and women at every rank from undergrad to full professor, the AAS should consider the work of the CSWA complete. But until then, corrective measures are necessary, and those measures will not be effective without consideration of gender.