The under-representation of women and minorities within certain areas of academia, business and education, particularly in high-paying jobs and managerial roles is well documented. Anti-discrimination laws can only do so much when unconscious bias is rife. This is where affirmative action comes in, controversial as it is, in the form of any of the following:
- scholarships for minorities
- prioritising minorities given equal qualifications
- diversity quotas.
The general idea is to account for the “selection function” that is privilege. In science, data is collected from objects which satisfy certain criteria. Often, the data we really want is convolved with the selection function. An example from astronomy is when you include only galaxy clusters brighter than a certain threshold in your sample; you are more likely to include objects: of higher mass; at low-medium redshift; that have cool-cores. If one wants to know the properties of an otherwise “fair” sample, you must perform some kind of deconvolution or correction (easier said than done). That’s what affirmative action attempts to do (also easier said than done). For the rest of this blog-post, I look at recent attempts to improve the representation of women, in particular, as well as responses to these .
Personally, I feel we need to pay far more attention to childhood development. How young people are conditioned to emulate certain behaviours that are socially acceptable, and identify certain career paths with gender (but there’s hope!). Ideally, gender quotas would force us to encourage young women to take on non-traditional roles. But to be honest, there’s something disconcerting about the way they leave women vulnerable to being perceived — not just by others but by themselves — as beneficiaries of lower-standards. Case in point: the Australian left-wing Labor party implement quotas but the right-wing Coalition do not. The latter had only woman in Cabinet announced in September 2013. This was followed by general uproar, and then came the comment from Coalition Senate leader Eric Abetz that twisted the knife: “these positions should be based on merit rather than on quota”. To me, gender quotas feel like an awkward first attempt at doing something… anything.
From a business perspective, there exists a fear of reduced productivity resulting from politically-correct laws. To appease such employers, I’ve heard such gloriously over-blown arguments as:
- “women bring a different perspective”
- “gender-balanced teams are more productive”
The former argument makes me want to puke.
The latter may be true, but it gives the wrong impression. It inadvertently shifts the weight of responsibility for the productivity of the whole team onto the shoulders of women. One might instead point out that if only 45% of the population is encouraged to pursue a particular career path, you lose 55% of potential candidates, and the result is actually a weaker hire. Conversely encouraging women (and girls from the get-go) widens the pool of potential candidates and ultimately results in a stronger hire. However, this argument only applies when considering the gender or racial bias, seeing as women and non-whites are not exactly a minority in the global population.
Harvard Business School conducted an extensive experiment on the class of 2013 for the purposes of improving gender relations by running discussion groups and teaching (female students) assertive in-class behaviour; there was the addition of teacher training in an effort to increase numbers of female senior faculty members. The overview in the New York Times makes for a fascinating, though uncomfortable read. The experiment uncovered a worrying trend in single women choosing between academic and social success. In a similar vein, the teaching methods of women were found to suffer because of a need to be liked. I wonder if the behaviour and body language associated with social success doesn’t always correlate with that associated with professional success, authority and power… depending on your gender. In any case, one issue cut deep:
“She was happy with her job at a California start-up, but she pointed out that she and some other women never heard about many of the most lucrative jobs because the men traded contacts and tips among themselves”
This goes to the heart of one of the road-blocks that women face: it’s difficult to compete against The Old Boys’ Club. So perhaps we need a female equivalent, although I’m not sure I’m comfortable with endorsing any such kind of exclusivity.
Whether at business school or preschool, more radical attempts to change attitudes towards gender roles can meet with exasperated responses such as
“is this political correctness gone too far?”
“it’s all very well to provide this nice environment in a sheltered supportive space, but it doesn’t prepare them for the real world. Aren’t we leaving them ill-equipped to deal with reality?”
Thus, the argument goes, if the world is a tough place, then we should make our educational institutions just as tough, so as to prepare the students.
And I suppose change will just happen by magic?