Gender policy in science is taking the wrong turn

Kali is the Hindu godess of time and change (possibly, also a occasional character in Star Treck). It will be bad if she also becomes a icon for gender policies.

Kali is the Hindu goddess of time and change, and an occasional character in Star Trek. It will be bad if she also takes a role as an icon for gender policies.

Discrimination against women is a serious issue everywhere, including academia. But gender policies are starting to punish the sons for the errors of their fathers. Do we really want to go in this way?

Sometime ago, I attended a conference. At some point, there was a ceremony to award a young scientist. A committee had selected three bright researchers, two men and one woman, who “equally deserved the prize”. As usual, suspense was made before announcing the winner.

Probably, no one in the public had any doubt that the young woman would be awarded. “Of course, the girl will get it”, someone sarcastically whispered behind me. And, in fact, she did. Naturally, she was happy and that award should make a nice entry in her CV now. The organizers were happy as well, as they finally had a female name among the winners. To me, it was all just a bit too sad.

I was sad for the two young men, who were discriminated for having a wrong pair of chromosomes. I was sad for the young woman, who, without noticing, was being humiliated in public by a patronizing committee. (Patronizing is really the right word here, isn’t?)

Let me make it plain: I am not debating that discrimination against women exists. It does. I am not debating either the need for gender policies and even affirmative actions to promote women in the diverse sectors. I am also in favor.

But we should take care that these policies do not fix one injustice by doing others. For anyone, it would be unreasonable to punish a son for the faults of his father. But is not exactly this that the award ceremony did?

Gender policies are also not helping their own cause when they treat women with condescendence. That young scientist didn’t need a committee laying their coats on a mud puddle to aid her. She was bright enough to deserve the award for her own achievements.

And maybe she did got it for the right reason! Maybe the committee really reached its decision in a fair judgment of merits, not gender. I have absolutely no proof against that. And this is another problem that gender policies have to learn how to deal with: they should not only not patronize, but they must also not look patronizing. We know well how demeaning it is when people gossip that a certain woman holds a certain position “because she is a woman”.

How should have the committee proceeded to not drawn within all these issues?

Simple, they did right when they short-listed all the candidates who “equally deserved the prize”. They failed, however, when they tried to choose among equals. If, instead of that ridiculous Oscar-like “the award goes to…”, they had just rolled the dice to randomly chose among the three scientists, they would have acted in the best interest of everyone: the men wouldn’t have been discriminated, the woman wouldn’t have been patronized, no one would have put the legitimacy of the award in question.

Sure, odds were 2 to 1 against a female winner that year. But it was an annual conference, it would soon happen. Does really the hurry of looking as an “equal-opportunity” award makes up for disseminating this feeling that we are starting to walk in the wrong direction?


Categories: Science Policy, Scientific Culture

Tags: , , , , , ,

9 replies

  1. simply brilliant. Liked it… most of your posts are simple fantastic. Check out mine..… pls share your feedback

  2. I quite agree with the award thing: it is crucial that it does not look patronizing. It would have been quite outrageous as well if all three were male. Then why on Earth does the winner get it, and not the others, if their chances were the same?

    Anyway, positive discrimination is sometimes the only way to boost the presence of a given minority. Sure, you can call it “punishing the majority” if you wish, but I think it is just a matter of balancing the resources in a different way. That said, one should be extremely careful when doing this when giving an award…

  3. Hi Sergio,

    The problem to me happens when we forget about the real people. We start to think about general categories, like minorities or gender, and not about people. The three young scientists, independent of their gender, were struggling to survive in a very competitive world.

    Imagine for sake of argument, that the girl was German coming from a high-middle class family and one of the boys was Spanish coming from a poor family. To reduce women underrepresentation (a fair aim), gender policies would punish the boy who was already in disadvantage and award the girl who had many better chances in her life.

  4. Indeed so, but I don’t see a problem there. The significance of both groups (women vs poor Spanish boys) is overwhelmingly different. Look, it’s the same as saying that having policies to support poor people will take away resources from supporting education, or research, or industry, or whatever. Sure as hell they will! But you have to focus your resources somehow if you want to fix a problem, so this is unavoidable.

  5. “The significance of both groups (women vs poor Spanish boys) is overwhelmingly different.” Yes, they are. And groups can be created according to convenience and hidden agendas. But I was not talking of groups. I was talking about two real people, with partners, kids and rents to pay. It is worth being unfair to these people to solve “group” problems?

  6. Until society decides there is no “good” discrimination, but only discrimination, everybody loses. The two boys feel discriminated against and the girl is cheated out of the opportunity of truly earning the award. I wrote something today that touches on this:

  7. Indeed, the method ”rolled the dices to randomly chose between equals” might be a good fair option to avoid a bias in the direction of the positive discrimination. Yet, it is clear that in this particular case you describe, the probability to have the male scientist selected is 2 to 1 for the men. Yes, ok no big deal this year, but the next year the ratio males:females can be again 2:1, and so on… this is probable since the number of women in science is generally smaller in the academic environment (at least, in physics).
    How to proceed then? I would think the way out if we employ your method would be to have an equal number of males and females with equivalent qualifications selected and then play the dices. Of course, the question arises : what if there is no female candidate with equal qualifications ? This might happen to be the case (although more rare in the last years) in some fields like theoretical physics, for example, where women are, in general, under-presented and there is a certain need for their promotion. I think, in order to arrive at a fair situation in the future, we might have to pass through some unfair bias in order to promote women especially in fields which are largely dominated by men. This is unfair to men since they are punished, but also to women, as you remarked correctly. There is always a danger of promoting somebody who is not very competent, but if we stuck to the ”equal qualification” criterion, it might be minimized.
    As i am working at the border of physics and theoretical chemistry, i observed, in practice, a large domination of male scientists in the groups i have been working with. This has been always fine with me, since i do not really ”see” the gender of the person when i am working, rather his/her competences. However, it is clear that something has to be done in practice for motivating women to pursue science as well. This is not easy since in general women are aslo less competative in nature.
    I admit though that i do not know the solution of the problem “positive discrimination” and what can actually come as a supprise to some guys is that a woman scientist can suffer the consequences of such a ”discrimination” :imagine a female professor promoted because of gender policies supervising a PhD female candidate, it is a formula for a disaster for the PhD and his career, i ensure you. Still, i vote with two hands for some women-friendly policies in science.

    • It is clearly necessary to focus on how to increase the number of short-listed women. But this a work that should be done since the basic levels, by stimulating women to follow scientific careers and by creating environments, where people (and not only women) don’t have to chose between family and career.


  1. Let Science Manage Scientists | Much Bigger Outside

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