December 17, 2012

Another Diversity Double Standard?

Inside Higher Ed reports on a new study that analyzes what its abstract calls "gender bias" in the top ranks of STEM fields. It found that one explanation -- that women publish less -- is true but suggests "that women may be publishing less than men because departments are not providing them with the same resources."

The study found that "researchers who have already received more institutional support are able to secure even more research resources" and that "historically female faculty members have received less institutional support and have had less access to research resources." What's not clear, however, is the presence of "bias." What if initially fewer women received support because fewer applied or because their credentials were less impressive than those of men applicants? The study appears to assume equal availability and equal qualifications.

Inside Higher Ed also referred to another study that found that "scientists (male and female alike) evaluated male candidates for jobs more favorably than female candidates -- even when presented with identical materials about the candidates." It is thus likely that those just starting their careers encounter bias, according to Luís Amaral, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern, "even if those doing the judging don't intend to be biased." 

Does anyone ever "intend to be biased"? In any event, according to the obviously well-intentioned Prof. Amaral, "[e]ven if you try to be enlightened, there is the weight of our culture to giving more resources to men." I'm not sure the evidence cited here, however, is sufficient to prove that endemic bias pervades our culture. Might there not be something like a "reverse diversity" bias showing up in what is presented as this preference for males with equal credentials?

Recall that one of the most popular justifications for preferring minorities or poor applicants is that they deserve credit for overcoming barriers that do not block others, a justification that has become especially prominent in the justification for preference based on socio-economic status. "[S]imple discrimination seems to have become a relatively smaller obstacle over the last few decades," the New York Times reported recently, "while socioeconomic disadvantage has become a larger one."

Perhaps "simple discrimination" by both male and female scientists explains why they prefer male to equally qualified female job applicants, but has anyone considered the possibility of a "reverse diversity backlash" against the expensive major national effort over the past decades to draftlure, induce, persuade more women into the STEM fields and to nurture them while they're there?

Just asking. But if overcoming the obstacles of an absence of encouragement, targeted financial aid, and continuing support can be considered justification for extra credit for some minorities, then perhaps they can be as well (even if subconscious and hence "unintended") for the largest minority group in college today, men.

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