Friday, August 9, 2013

Reverse discrimination?

This week I gave a talk about physics education that included a substantial discussion of the benefits of diversity in creating a successful university program.  I was presenting in a different country, where the culture is patriarchal although respectful of minorities.  Very few of the faculty or students in this physics audience were women.

At the end of the talk, a young man asked, "Why are you trying to recruit women?  Isn't that reverse discrimination?"  I smiled, glad to have an elephant in the room revealed.  Fortunately, I had been thinking about his question for a while, as it has come up in other settings.

I answered no, I didn't consider it reverse discrimination, it was merely rectifying an imbalance caused by discouragement and implicit bias.  He then asserted that perhaps women didn't want to pursue science careers and were making other choices.

I replied that the women I had spoken with definitely wanted to pursue science careers, and I concluded that no, I was definitely not practicing reverse discrimination.

It was a short exchange, I resisted the temptation to launch into a wider discussion about cultural stereotypes, bias, etc.  (Know one's audience -- that approach would likely have been ineffective in this country.)  This kind of question can be frustrating, but it also represents an excellent opportunity to present facts and to show the many benefits of improving the climate in our departments and workplaces.  We will never change the hearts and minds of everyone, but there are young men in such audiences who may become allies, and young women who will appreciate the encouragement.  At the very least, speaking out sets a good example for department leadership to do likewise.  It's also a good thing for men to be speaking on this issue, as it makes the charge of reverse discrimination less plausible to other men.


photon said...

What a succinct response. I'll try that the next time I hear "reverse discrimination" cried.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely support diversification as long its goals are to "rectify an imbalance caused by discouragement and implicit bias". However, in recent hiring practice in astronomy, it has been common to hire a qualified female over an even better qualified male. Wouldn't you call that reversed discrimination? This is a difficult topic, but both sides have to be viewed!

Julia said...

Anonymous, can you share what makes you believe that is common?

Unknown said...

And how is she supposed to get *equal* qualifications if she is unable to get hired because of bias? That's a Catch 22. Can't get experience, and then not hired because you don't have experience.

Qualifications are supposed to say who would be best at a job. She could easily be the better astronomer.

Cuttlefish said...

Anonymous... As a long term strategy, reducing the biases against women in astronomy is a worthwhile goal--we hobble ourselves unnecessarily when we restrict our resources to half the population. Having appropriate role models and examples in prominent positions and in front of classrooms is a very useful step in this long term strategy.

A (by your admission) qualified female who can also contribute toward that long term strategy may well be--purely from the standpoint of what is best for Astronomy--a far better candidate than the "better qualified" male, when the long term, as well as short term, contingencies are examined. A short-term strategy may well also be a short-sighted strategy.

Anonymous said...

Its true that having a woman in a position in astronomy might give more encouragement to woman in the long term. But does not that go into gender discrimination i.e to select a person based on her/his gender rather than his skills. Can the man not selected in the position do anything to the fact that he is a man? And yes from where I am studying (outside USA) it is common these days to attribute bursary in Astronomy more to woman than to man. You fall sometimes on classes where most of the students are women. I would be fine with such a class if it was purely on merit base ... but I know it is not. In the end I kind of feel sad that somewhere, some guy got rejected even though he had good results purely because of how he was born!

jlr said...

Anonymous, you are not considering the full context. While it might be frustrating for a guy to get rejected from an opportunity he is qualified for, I have no less sympathy for a woman who suffers the same fate, and that is far a more common problem.

Plus, I have never seen real evidence that "better qualified" men are getting turned down for merely "qualified" women. In fact, I have never seen convincing evidence that measures of "qualification" are at all useful for predicting success with much precision, aside from perhaps the few most extraordinary performers. Really, there are the exceptional cases, who will be selected in any case, and then a pool of qualified candidates. Claims of "better qualified" applicants being overlooked usually sound more like sour grapes than valid complaints.

Monkeyfish said...


You must not be trying very hard to find evidence. A case could indeed be made that there is a reverse hiring bias. Female assistant profs are overrepresented compared to the number of female PhD recipients.

I find the original poster's oversimplifying attitude and assumption of "discouragement and implicit bias" typical of the amazingly unscientific approach astronomers and physicists take to this issue. Please tell us what the appropriate percentage of female faculty is, and why.