Do universities need affirmative action? -

Do universities need affirmative action?

Equity policies may have little impact.


Two things have put affirmative action on my mind lately. One is the Tory musings that the government might abandon the federal affirmative action policy. The other is that I am on a hiring committee at work.

My august institution has an affirmative action policy that seems, at least, in theory, fairly reasonable to me. In a nutshell, the policy says that well qualified members of visible minorities and well qualified women should at least get an interview — even if just on the phone or by video conference. Moreover, if it comes down to two more-or-less equally qualified candidates, the minority candidate or the woman should be preferred to the white man. Fair enough, I say, because the policy does not call for the less qualified to be hired over the more qualified — with all the potential pitfalls that can arise from there. And hey, all else equal, surely going for increased diversity is better than flipping a coin.

But does my university really need such a policy? And if we do, is it doing any good? I am doubtful on both counts.

Though university professors are far from perfect, they are, in my experience, more than usually aware of bias and more than usually broad minded. At the very least, they are intensely interested in seeming broad minded. Indeed, faced with a candidate who is a member of a visible minority, I suspect most university professors would make a point of being particularly open to the candidacy, if for no other reason than to allow themselves hearty self-congratulations later on.

The ethnic diversity of my university faculty colleagues seems to bear this out. Cape Breton is not, itself, particularly diverse, and it is not always easy to attract candidates who may feel out of place on a small, sparsely populated island where they are less likely to meet others with the same religion, linguistic backgrounds, or cultural traditions. Nevertheless, the university is far more culturally diverse than the surrounding community. I have colleagues from around the world and who follow a variety of religious traditions. The university is also one of the few places in Cape Breton where alternative sexualities can be openly discussed and displayed without fear of unwanted social consequences.

As for women, female faculty abound here, and not just in the arts, but in many science disciplines, too. The  inequities that remain seem primarily a result of the fields that women choose to pursue — which may be a problem in itself,  but not one likely to be helped much by affirmative action. I was on a Philosophy hiring committee once, and of the twenty-five applicants, only one was a woman. Why don’t women want to be philosophers? On the other hand, female candidates have always been taken seriously on the hiring committees that I have served on, and when it comes to continuing positions in my department, they have been evenly split between men and women — at least since I’ve been here.

Still, diversity in the ranks doesn’t proves the policy is unneeded. It could be a sign that the policy is working.  But I doubt it.  First of all, the affirmative action policy is trumped by Canadian law which privileges Canadian citizens and permanent residents; recent immigrants, who may often be minorities, are often neither and get pushed aside. Moreover, the policy does not cover every element of diversity, only visible minorities, persons with disabilities, and women. In other words, the policy does not help you if you are gay or of a minority cultural group that is not visibly different (as with Jewish people of European descent, for example).

More importantly, the policy only applies to you if you self-identify for the equity initiative. This makes a certain amount of sense, of course: you can’t necessarily recognize a member of a visible minority when you can’t see the candidate. And you really don’t want a committee trying to guess. In practice, however, surprisingly few candidates self-identify, especially women. I’m not quite sure why this is. Perhaps they feel that self-identifying makes them look weak in the eyes of the committee. Or, they may feel that they don’t want special treatment — that they want the job only if they are clearly the best candidate. So, if the job-seekers don’t want affirmative action, whose interests does it serve?

Finally, at the end of the process, the committee still chooses the best candidate. If that candidate is a member of a visible minority the policy was never needed; if she is not, the policy does not apply. In theory, the affirmative action policy might force a committee to consider a candidate they would have dismissed, only to find out he was great and hire him after all, but while I would welcome such an outcome, I have never seen it happen. Similarly, there could be a theoretical tie between two very good candidates, and the minority applicant would be chosen, but, again, while I would have no problem with that, I have never seen that happen either.

So while the current policy has little or no effect, a tougher policy would achieve more diversity only at the cost of fairness and academic quality. And how much more diverse than the surrounding community does the university need to be? But who knows, maybe this hiring committee will be the one.  We professors are unusually open-minded, you know.

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Do universities need affirmative action?

  1. The University of Waterloo hired 41 faculty members in the last year.
    3 of them were female.


  2. “Moreover, if it comes down to two more-or-less equally qualified candidates, the minority candidate or the woman should be preferred to the white man”

    That’s INCREDIBLY racist and sexist! In fact, that’s using the previous issue of inequality for certain groups as an excuse for BOTH racial and gender discrimination. If this was put in place FOR the “white man” instead of against, people would be in an uproar. But its okay only if its AGAINST him? That’s racist and sexist, and is a massive hypocrisy.

    If you want everyone equal, fine. But don’t go and do the things you rail on, under the guise of “being equal”.

  3. Eric H.
    Please read the comment above yours. There is no discrimination against men (nor white men specifically). There is still rampant discrimination against women in the academy.
    That needs to be changed. If we leave it up to the men in power to change it, it won’t change (evidenced by the numbers at Waterloo). Therefore, legislated change is necessary.

  4. “There is no discrimination against men (nor white men specifically).”

    Then what’s this:

    “Moreover, if it comes down to two more-or-less equally qualified candidates, the minority candidate or the woman should be preferred to the WHITE MAN”

    Also, statistics does not necessarily implicate discrimination. For example, in the Game Development Industry the gender statistics are much towards mostly males. However, if a female was to apply to a Game Development school or company, she would likely be easily chosen over a male of equal or even slightly greater credentials. THUS, despite statistics being in FAVOR of males, the hiring policies are AGAINST them. Thus, statistics are not a solid a proof as hiring policies, and the above quoted policy is very clear in its racism and sexism. Using statistics as an excuse for racism and sexism is just that, an EXCUSE. Racism and sexism have no place in modern society, regardless of excuses.

  5. Eric H, I get what you’re saying, but you missed my point. Without policies in place, men consistently still get hired over women. The statistics do back that up.
    Moreover, men still get paid more than women when they do get hired for the job. Waterloo had to go through a gender equity payment last year after their faculty association determined women were being paid less for the same work in the same jobs.
    UNTIL things are equal, we need to do something to redress the balance.
    Is it unfair to white men? Yes, of course, but the system has been unfair to women and minorities for thousands of years. The least we can do is suck it up for a few years and fight to make things equal alongside our sisters, mothers, wives and daughters.

  6. Actually (although I appreciate you coming to women’s rescue, Goodguy), I don’t think either of you fully comprehend what affirmative action IN UNIVERSITIES is about (the point of the article, which is not about affirmative action in society as a whole).

    Eric uses the example of game developers, and this is perfect because it’s the ideal counter-argument to his argument. Game players are nearly 50% women, so why are there so few game developers? It’s not about discrimination at the point of hire (as you say, many companies would be happy to hire a woman). It’s about the lifetime of discrimination that goes on that convinces young girls that computers are “boys toys” and that if she has anything to do with science or math she will become a social outcast, never get married, and live a lonely miserable existence.

    I know this because I’m a female computer scientist. What affirmative action in universities is about is trying to get women into those positions that have been traditionally dominated by men so that young women can see role models with which they can identify. They can see that it’s OK to be a female computer scientist, and that you can still get married and have a normal life. That (at least some) men will accept them even if they are “geeks”.

    We need female role models, particularly in the sciences, which is why we need to hire women professors into those roles whenever we can. I’m not saying hire an incompetent women over a competent man–and that rarely happens. That does more damage to the issue than good. I’m saying IF there is a competent woman and the job is for a position where more than half of the department are already men, then give the job to a woman.

    I would say the opposite is true for roles dominated traditionally by women. Men should be role models in nursing.

    The roles traditionally dominated by women, however (nursing, secretarial), are roles that are subservient to others (usually men). The issue here is that men have dominated positions of power, and it’s now time to change that. The only way to change that is to have the “other half” (51% of the human population) represented equally in those positions. If men continue to dominate, they will perpetuate that cycle as girls internalize the societal norms as they grow up.

    • I have yet to see a “female gamer” who is as much on love with video games as boys her age. Did you just pull this “50% game players are women” out of thin air? It is because of blatant lies like these I hate feminists. You tried to sugarcoat your comment quite a bit because now feminists know men have started to push back on feminists’ toxic and non-sensical propaganda of stripping men of their rights and handing it over to women. This affirmative action is just another example of that (pushing non deserving females into STEM fields just to fill the ‘quota’). This is non sense.

  7. “Is it unfair to white men? YES, OF COURSE…”

    So you’re telling me that even though the effects of prejudice and discrimination are clear to anyone in this country, you still wish to discriminate? Was it not Martin Luther King Jr who said “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Why is it that you insist on judging others unfairly just because some have been judged as such in the past? Have we as a culture not learned our lesson of racism and sexism? Like Mr. King said, we should judge people on their character -their attributes, skills, and merit- not on their race or sex.

    Men and women of every ethnicity in every country have fought and died for equality and non-discrimination, and I for one say that this should not be insulted by having discrimination; most definitely not for a “eye for an eye” scenario, and most definitely not because some institutions need reprimand. If an institution appears to be hiring or giving pay unfairly, then that’s a case for Canadian equality law where things should be once again made an even playing field for all; not discrimination answered with more discrimination. If hiring boards at Waterloo are discriminating against women, then give the hiring decision to a neutral third party or change the people on the hiring board to those known for heralding equality and non-discrimination for all.

    To answer racism and sexism with more racism and sexism is more atrocious and shameful than those who discriminated in the first place.



    I agree with you about the gender roles issue, though this is not an excuse for discrimination. It should most definitely be addressed and solved, but in a way that is not violating our culture’s morals and values.

  8. Eric H, it’s great that you believe in equality, but the problem is that many men still do not. Until women (and other races at least until they’re proportionally represented) are equally in positions of power, there needs to be a law to ensure that this happens. Otherwise, history has shown us what will happen–white men will control the power and then use everything in their power to maintain control. You seem to like history–you cannot deny that the system has been set up to oppress women. It was only the last century that women were allowed to vote. “Our culture’s morals and values” has consistently been white men above all. We need to change reality so we can change perception.

    Women are not interested in taking away your rights. BUT, until there is equality, we need a way to redress the balance. Affirmative action is necessary until there is still a balance. Until there is no longer a need to have a “neutral third party in charge of hiring” (seriously?). It’s not racist or sexist to demand equality. White men still hold the balance of power in our society by a loooooooong shot, so don’t play the victim.

  9. Wow. Your response is so telling of your true feelings in terms of racism and sexism I almost don’t even need to make a response.

    “Eric H, it’s great that you believe in equality, but the problem is that many men still do not”

    And there are lots of women who don’t either. It goes for both sides. The mentioned racist and sexist law against white men having a fair chance in society clearly shows this, and as does your support for it.

    “Women are not interested in taking away your rights.”
    Again, it’s wise to be solid in your statements or else avoid being a hypocrite. First, I do believe equality is now a human right. And you insist on taking that away for certain ethnic and gender groups. Thus you actually ARE interested in taking away rights, and basic human rights at that.

    “White men will control the power and then use everything in their power to maintain control”

    That’s racist. And before you go and try to make excuses as to why its not, consider the many, many, many other nations out there with power structures that are using illicit methods such as intense monitoring, terrorism, and genocide to keep themselves in control. Look at China, look at the Middle East, look at certain parts of Africa. Last time I checked it wasn’t the “White men” who are interested in “controll[ing] the power”, and who aren’t committing human rights crimes to do such. In fact, if you really feel strongly about women’s rights, look at the status of women in certain religious countries. Some of them aren’t even allowed out of their house. And I’m pretty sure a “white man” didn’t “set up” that system.

    “Until there is no longer a need to have a “neutral third party in charge of hiring” (seriously?).”
    “there needs to be a law to ensure that this happens”
    You seem to easily question an equality-preserving method of solving the problem while proposing an equality-destroying and rights-removing method. This is the kind of racist and sexist actions that need to be kept of Canada. Canada is a place of equality for all, period, regardless of ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc. And that includes the “white men” as much as the black, asian, etc.

    “White men still hold the balance of power in our society by a loooooooong shot, so don’t play the victim.”
    Playing the victim? Really? I’M BLACK, I’m not white, these changes don’t affect me. But just because the “white man” subjugated my people doesn’t mean I’m about allow people take away his rights.