Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Response #1 to arguments against affirmative action

Image credit: NPR vis Wordle
Last year presented a hypothetical scenario in which a university incentivized an astronomy department to diversify their faculty. I wrote
A top-25 astronomy department has a major gender imbalance on their faculty. Let's say the fraction of women professors is below 10% of the overall faculty (This is a safe example since we don't actually know of such a department, do we? Right? Anyone?). 
Let's suppose that the upper administrators at said hypothetical university (e.g. the Dean of Sciences) would like to address this problem with a radical approach. If the astronomy department conducts a programmatic search for a woman junior professor and identifies a candidate that meets the high bar expected of the university and department, then a special faculty line will be made available that won't count against future departmental hires.
I then solicited arguments against such an effort. I had several motivations in soliciting these arguments. First, I really want to get the lay of the land. I've heard scattered bits and pieces of arguments against affirmative action policies (e.g. "They're unfair to white men!" or "Women are getting jobs unfairly."), and I like to be prepared when discussing them. The comments I received motivated me to read up on the subject, and talk to more knowledgeable friends and experts. I also wanted to spark a community discussion on the topic, which based on the comments to my first post, on Facebook and in emails sent to me, I think I succeeded, at least amongst the people paying any sort of attention to the issue.

(Note that Joan Schmelz wrote an excellent, related piece on affirmative action yesterday). 

I made up this specific example because I didn't want to ask for arguments against the some unspecified definition or cartoon-model of "affirmative action." Affirmative action takes on many forms. Sometimes it acts to affirm that minority groups are welcome in science. Other times it corrects the ways in which we select for excellence. Other times it attempts to counteract implicit biases or institutional structures that prevent full participation, either explicitly or implicitly. 

For this discussion I wanted to specifically address the issue of the "diversity hire," namely the programmatic consideration of someone who brings diversity to a department, either by virtue of who they are or through their actions, or both. However, I must now admit that the hypothetical that I came up with at the time was not precisely based on knowledge of how this sort of process actually takes place. Indeed, performing a faculty search aimed at a specific gender or ethnicity is prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As one commenter wrote:
This is a very bad idea. There are two ways this could go: 
1) The department explicitly advertises something like "Seeking female astrophysicist". This is overt discrimination and is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, among other things. (The university lawyers would forbid something this blatant if they are worth their salaries; if they didn't, it could lead to an expensive lawsuit.) 
2) the department has either an explicit or a "gentlemen's agreement" (HA!) with the administration to advertise a job to the unwashed masses but to only hire a female, eg. "Seeking tenure-track astrophysicist...women and minorities especially encouraged to apply". This is still illegal if such an agreement exists.
I spoke to a lawyer about these concerns and they told me, "Generally speaking, [Title VII] prohibits discrimination in any employment decision on the basis of race, sex, color, religion, or national origin. This applies to hiring, discharge, compensation, and the terms and conditions of employment.  The comment to your post discussing Title VII probably has it right: directly advertising a job for a female professor would violate this provision." 

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However, they added, "Under Title VII, certain voluntary affirmative action plans are permissible for private employers.  If a private employer can show that there is a conspicuous imbalance in traditionally segregated job categories, and, for example, qualified women in the applicable workforce are proportionally underrepresented in the job, then developing a plan to remedy that manifest imbalance may be legally above board." 

Thus, as with most things, it all comes down to execution. I am aware of several universities that are conducting searches specifically designed to increase the diversity of their faculty, and they are doing so within the bounds of the law, in consultation with lawyers who know far more about all of this than I do. Thus, let's set aside arguments against the legality of the details of my straw-person proposal, and instead focus on the merit of the intent: a university incentivizing a department to increase gender diversity. 

Among the arguments that came up most frequently, here's one. I'll post others in future posts, but just as with this post, there may be a significant delay as I try to find my equilibrium in my new job. 

[A]ffirmative action at least in the hiring of faculty puts the bulk of the cost on correcting historical imbalance on the people least responsible for it. Senior faculty who have arguably benefitted the most pay nearly no cost, while postdocs and other early career scientists pay a price. Given the rarity of faculty jobs, let us not pretend that there is no cost.

I certainly won't pretend that there is zero cost. There are cost-benefit considerations in any hire at any level of academia. Sometimes a department needs a radio astronomer, and this programatic consideration influences their final hiring decision. This may result in the dept. passing up a truly outstanding theorist in order to hire a radio observer. This is very unfair to theorists seeking faculty positions that year. It also means that the department didn't hire that really amazing theorist. That's a real cost. But the benefit may well outweigh that cost in the minds of the faculty in that particular department, particularly, e.g., if they invested heavily in CCAT. (BTW, it is worth mentioning that both of these candidates might be equally qualified for the job, yet the decision came down to a programmatic consideration. This happens in real life all the time, whether the programmatic consideration be observation vs. theory, or diversity vs. not).

As for shifting the burden onto the younger generation, this happens with all things in academia. At Berkeley I had to put up with overcrowded gym facilities because previous generations built a tiny gym. At Hawaii there were no undergraduate astronomy students with whom I could work as a postdoc because previous administrations at the University of Hawaii at Manoa decided that there wouldn't be an undergrad astronomy program (they are starting one now, I hear. Also, at the time they had an REU program.). 

In astronomy, the older generation operated within a society that for much of history excluded women from academia. Period. As products of that generation, our forefathers built institutional structures and made decisions that benefitted them. Which is to say, they built a system that benefitted men. Not necessarily because they were actively or consciously chauvinistic (although some were/are). Instead, when groups of astronomers gathered to make decisions about the structure and future of the field, they attempted to maximize their benefit, where "their" refers to straight, white males. 

These decisions carried costs for our forefathers. Astronomers hired in 1950 competed against only about 40% of the potential talent pool. Imagine selecting your nation's Olympic sprinter based on a 10-woman field in which six of the runners weren't at the starting line due to food poisoning the night before. I think the team would pay a price, especially if the best sprinter was unfortunate enough to order the wrong dinner the night before. The reasons for the reduced competitive field in astronomy aside, the result was a situation that was far from the meritocracy that we value in academia. This is a real cost. And I note, it's a cost very rarely mentioned by those who cry "reverse discrimination."
Further, to pretend that those benefits are confined to history with no consequences for how we do business today is naive in the extreme. As a male astronomer, I am a direct beneficiary of many of the decisions made by past generations of male astronomers. I have enjoyed these benefits throughout my career. As the breadwinner in a single-income household for the past six years, I became a perfect fit for today's academy, and I have been rewarded as a result. As a beneficiary of the present system, I am unconscious of many of my privileges, as are most people, even those of the current generation. I've also found myself in many situations defending the status quo due to my ignorance of how it affects others (I am grateful for my network of friends and mentors who keep me in check). Those who have been handed down a system of male privilege are not likely to recognize it, nor are they going to jump at the opportunity to give up their inherited privileges

Thus, it is not just the past generation that benefits from past decisions. Unless we take action today, these benefits will just continue to be passed along to the detriment of minority groups. Corrective action (affirmative action) carries a cost, to be sure. But there are also substantial benefits, particularly for those of us who wish to operate within a true meritocracy. Such a situation will not come about overnight. We need to recognize that A) we don't currently inhabit a meritocracy and B) we need to take action today to create a meritocracy in the future. Otherwise, kids born today will have this same discussion while we of today's generation will sit back enjoying the privileges handed down to us. 


  1. Your logic makes partial sense, John. Unfortunately, you make the logical leap that affirmative action at the professorship (or similar level) reverses or fixes in the long term the harm that has already been done at the much earlier levels of educational access that is the root cause of any inequity in hiring.

    I have seen very little evidence that the "role model" argument for hiring disadvantaged groups at the top does much at all to sustainably improve the underlying situation. Changing the final outcome of hiring to make it outwardly appear more fair has not made the contributing system more fair, which is what you want in the end.

    And moreover, just as you suggest that new young disadvantaged students were harmed by factors that they had no part in, so does your solution try to impose corrective action that will likely benefit those who may have had no harm from those conditions. At worst, you are harming people in the early stages of their career for no measureable benefit.

    If you're going to change the research hiring system with such motivations (a system which admittedly has flaws of its own), you'd be well served to show that the intervention you propose actually leads to the conclusion you wish for, rather than assuming it does. Few academic departments do the thinking to say why exactly they want to take these steps, and why / whether it leads to a truly changed system.

    Finally, I would suggest that in today's university hiring environment, any disadvantaged minority is being so positively considered to the point of bending over backwards to hire such candidates. Just ask any astronomer who has recently been through a faculty search to hear about these soft unstated criteria -- which you are no doubt aware of. The Facebook group is so saturated with Jessica's daily posts on women in astronomy that I would be shocked if anyone can still be unaware of / or willing to actually discriminate in hiring.

    This is not where your effort needs to be focused, or where you should be trading off "harms" of different groups because you merely believe that it will lead to a more diverse professorate, *if* that is valuable. I hope you will focus your efforts on the stage of the game where the outcome is truly determined, not adding points to the score at the end.

  2. "The Facebook group is so saturated with Jessica's daily posts on women in astronomy that I would be shocked if anyone can still be unaware of / or willing to actually discriminate in hiring."

    If people are now more aware of their implicit biases, and unwilling to discriminate in hiring (when their name is publicly attached to their decision anyway), this is a fantastic development! Keep up the good work, Jessica.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous. I appreciate how you have addressed the specific points of my post and how you took the time to fully articulate your view. I hope this sets a good example for other commetors to follow.

    You said that I made a logical leap in saying that "affirmative action at the professorship (or similar level) reverses or fixes in the long term the harm that has already been done at the much earlier levels". I'm sorry that this appears to be a logical leap, but it is supported by research into the factors that affect student success. Here's a resource that points to a large body of peer-reviewed literature that supports the value of having role models:

    Role Models countering stereotype threat

    I'm sorry that you haven't personally seen the benefit in your personal experience. But I'd posit that your limited personal experience doesn't give you a full view of the situation in academia, particularly as it pertains to minority students. Indeed, anyone's single life experience leaves them in a bad position to comment too generally. I find that sociology is done best with large samples and rigorous statistics, not based on one's personal experience. I hope that you can agree.

    In the future, I'll be more careful to cite references like the link above when I argue that affirmative action at the professor level can lead to major benefits to student learning, postdoctoal training, and improving the general work environment. Other benefits of diversity at the faculty level were recently described by a student of mine here:

    Arguments for gender diversity in STEM

    For more on stereotype threat and how it impedes student learning, see

    Reducing Stereotype Threat

    On that page is a list of 300+ peer-reviewed journal articles that detail this phenomenon and what it does to people in non-diverse working environments.

    I could share my own personal experiences with being an uber-minority in astronomy, and how being in a department that had three other Black people and even a single Black professor was absolutely key to my own success. But I'd rather focus on non-anectdotal evidence for the sake of our discussion.

    Finally, thank you for your interest in Jessica's reposts of WiA articles to Facebook. If you feel that the posting frequency is too high, I invite you to just scroll past them. There is a lot of content on the Astronomer's FB page that I don't find particularly useful, and I find that scrolling is a highly effective way of getting to the material that interests me. I don't mean to unnecessarily point out the obvious here. I do sincerely want to help you with your feeling of saturation.

    Take care, and thanks again for commenting!

  4. It seems you accept essentially every point of the arguments against your position.

    (In addressing the question of legality, you agree that your initial proposal was probably unlawful, at least according to a lawyer. But I digress.)

    The first point of the text in bold is that there are real costs to gender-based discrimination. You agree, and I commend you for making this immediately clear (this is far more than many proponents of the policies you advocate are willing to concede). However, the example you furnish of a reasonable cost-benefit consideration, a radio astronomer being hired over a theorist, is not an exact analogy. Your example concerns turning away exceptional talent for specific expertise. It is not particularly difficult to defend that position with the dismal calculus of future papers published, observing hours logged, and PhDs minted. What you are advocating for, however, is turning away exceptional talent for specific chromosomes. It would have been more enlightening if you had explained how you would weigh the cost of the latter choice against its less easily measured, and certainly more controversial, programmatic gains.

    The commenter also argues that it is senior faculty who have primarily benefited, and will carry none of the reparatory burden. You seem to agree on who the primary beneficiaries have been, but do not address the implied moral argument that those who previously benefitted the most should now pay the most. Instead, you further confirm that the bulk of the burden will be placed on people who are at an earlier stage in their careers. In addressing this, you say that this has always been the case in academia, citing examples of an overcrowded gym and a lack of undergrads for you to work with when you were a postdoc. (Again, the analogies are misleading, as the pain you wish to inflict will not be felt equally by younger people--it will be felt by the men, not the women). Furthermore, you ignore many proposed reforms that directly benefit the youth over the tribe elders, some particularly helping women--abolishing or revising tenure, forced retirement ages, allowing student unions, affordable childcare facilities, extended maternal leave, etc, etc. Of course, most of these are vigorously opposed by the senior faculty--they cost money.

    You convincingly argue that the entrenched patriarchal system continues to directly aid men in the field today at all stages of their careers, and that this is contrary to an academic meritocracy. Did this hurt the field in the past as well? Probably, but then again, more discoveries left to the current generation, which has more women anyway. Nevertheless, the commenter did not contradict any of these points, so this hardly a disagreement or refutation. Aside from that, the analogy you make is so strange that it undermines your good arguments: "Imagine selecting your nation's Olympic sprinter based on a 10-woman field in which six of the runners weren't at the starting line due to food poisoning the night before. I think the team would pay a price, especially if the best sprinter was unfortunate enough to order the wrong dinner the night before." The obvious invalidity of comparing your ideal, diverse astronomy department to a group of all-female runners aside, what does food poisoning symbolize here, the patriarchy?

    Besides, if I wanted a fast sprinter, I'd hire a man.

    Zaph B.

  5. Zaph B.

    Thank you for your comments. I can tell that you feel very passionately about this issue. Because of how strongly you feel, I encourage you to read up on the subject, starting with our nation's long history of excluding minorities and underprivileged groups from participation in our country, despite the language of our founding documents. Also, it seems that you may have missed my response to the first commenter. In case you did, you should check out what I wrote above. In what I write below, I'll take my previous comment as read, specifically concerning the benefits of a diverse workforce.

    In addressing the point about legality, I conceded that specifically advertising for a woman is illegal under Title VII. But I also point to many programs across the nation that are hiring specifically to increase diversity (e.g. the faculty searches at UCSD and Texas, as well as the UC President's postdoctoral program). The motivations for these programs are the same as those in my post. These programs are fully legal. Title VII does allow a job search committee to favor a candidate because she is a woman or a minority (or both). Please be careful with your selective reading. It doesn't do your argument any favors.

    I made my arguments under the assumption that diversity is beneficial to the field. In other words, having only ~40% of the population participate up until recently has been a less-than-ideal situation for many reasons. Also, we have denied equal opportunity to people for most of the history of science in general and astronomy specifically. Thus, reversing this trend is advantageous and worthwhile to pursue. My arguments go well beyond having a specific genetic makeup (specific chromosomes). That was the argument used in the past to make astronomy what it is today: dominated by white men because other groups are intellectually inferior (the faulty reasoning of the past). That argument was demonstrably foolish, as were the actions that followed. That faulty thinking has been carried over to today, either explicitly or in most cases through implicit biases (a good vocabulary word for you to look up in case you are unaware of how it impacts hiring).

    Many programs across the country recognize these points and are now making specific, active measures to increase diversity by affirming a place in academia for underrepresented minority women and men, and white women. The question is whether these programs are justified and should continue. Because you mostly focused on the meta-level of my argument, I didn't really see where you came down on this specific question.

    As for your argument about how a non-ideal workforce of the past has left more problems for today's astronomers; I'm sorry but this reasoning is silly. Either you're saying that you are happy that we are lagging in our progress due to past discrimination, or you're failing to acknowledge that a lack of affirmative action will ensure that mostly white men get to "inherit" the unsolved problems left behind (or both). How so? Look at the gender/racial/ethnic makeup of the faculty of most departments. At the same time, you agree that having only white men studying astronomy in the past has left behind many unsolved problems. I use this very fact as an argument for why diversity brings specific expertise worth selecting for.

  6. Zaph:

    Here are some more thoughts. I don't think you can (or did) argue with my point that the younger generation always inherits the costs or benefits of decisions made by those who came before them, whether you like my gym analogy or not. This is an argument for making wise decisions at all stages. The older generation worked to exclude women, racial minorities, gays, etc. They made very bad choices. Yes, we have to pay for that now. Through affirmative action, some of that cost must be borne by white men. For hundreds of years up to this point, the cost was paid by Blacks, hispanics, LGBTQ and women of all colors. If we continue with business as usual, these latter groups will continue to pay and suffer. Are you saying that you'd be happy with this situation? Affirmative action programs today will help ensure that this is not our future.

    Here's a better analogy. After WWII, the GI Bill was established to help veterans buy houses and get higher education in order to get good jobs. However, because this program was State-administered, it excluded Blacks in the majority of the nation, especially in the South where most Blacks lived. This meant that Black people who served their country in WWII were barred from benefits given to other veterans. Actively correcting this injustice in more recent times has meant that there is less GI Bill funding available for whites, because it was made more widely available to Blacks. Would you, today in 2014, argue that this was a bad decision because it is unfair to young white men who weren't responsible for the original discrimination? The language you use in your comment seems to indicate that you'd argue against making GI Bill funding more widely available through actions that affirm Black's rights to equal access. But I'm sure this is not something you'd actually argue (I'd hope!).

    The way toward true excellence and a true meritocracy is through diversity. Without diversity, we can't reach our lofty goals. Without specific, targeted action, we won't get there. How do I know? Count the number of women and minority men/women on your department's faculty today, 50 years after the Civil Rights Act. This unfair representation alone trumps specific expertise in, say, radio astronomy. So I agree, the analogy I used was imperfect. But I have yet to see a valid counterargument to my main points.

    (BTW, your last line about the best sprinter being a man is what we in poker call "a tell." Either that, or you are aware of the long history of outstanding women Olympic sprinters and you were making a bad attempt at humor. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter)

  7. There is nothing hypothetical about this situation. We do know that this has happened. Everyone involved was aware that it was illegal, but it worked like a charm.

  8. Anonymous: You're absolutely right. People were hired solely because of their race and gender, while excluding a huge portion of the talent pool. This has happened, and it's well documented and everyone knew it was going on. The problem was and is so widespread that it has completely shaped our field and affected everyone involved. It has hurt our science and thrown insult at the notion of a meritocracy.

    The only thing I'd disagree with you about is that the system was fully legal. The system I'm referring to is the multi-century program of affirmative action for white men that has only recently begun to be rolled back.

    Is this what you're referring to?

  9. Good post, and I'm glad that you're keeping up with the comments. I truly think some of your responses have outshined the original post. The GI Bill analogy was great.

  10. Good post, and I'm glad that you're keeping up with the comments. I truly think some of your responses have outshined the original post. The GI Bill analogy was great.