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.