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In which I ramble on about why quotas make me nervous, and link to some people who have thought longer and harder than me on this.

September 27, 2012

Back when I was doing the interview rounds as a fresh Ph.D., my host at one of the universities mentioned that whereas this was the regular interview round, they had one scheduled a few weeks or a month later for a minority hire. Implication, as I recall and interpret, that there was a separate quota, a special time for interviewing individuals of a particularly desirable class – in this case under-represented minorities. In this same period of interviews, one of my fellow grad-students sent out an e-mail asking for pointers on how to deal with her interviews.  My universities were nothing to sneeze at (not that they hired me), but hers was stellar.  I knew she was good, as were most of us.  She also belonged to one of the desirable minorities. (Technically, I’m probably rarer than she is, being, at the time, a female Swedish immigrant, but that doesn’t put me into one of the disadvantaged minorities, which, of course is the point).

As I said, she was good. I have no evidence that she got her interviews based on anything other than her capabilities, and she is doing well for herself.  I was more, at the time, noting how that little doubt stung.  The possibility of someone getting selected for choice interviews in a competitive market based on attributes that has nothing to do with ability.

Curt Rice posted on twitter the other day a question why women were so against affirmative action when men had benefitted from this for ages.  And, yes, that stung too!  That is why we wanted it changed.  And, remember, too, it was not all men that had this privilege.  Richard Feynman was admitted because the ivy-leagues opened up to Jews. In an article in the New Republic from 1995 (Adrian Wooldridge)  which talked about the positives of IQ tests (it is here, but not necessarily in its entirety unless you do a free trial), they mentioned how the universities in England finally opened up position to men from lower classes, based on their stellar IQ scores.

I responded to Curt that the fear was that your abilities would be questioned and dismissed if the perception was that you had gotten in on a quota.

This is the standard reply, he said (I’m paraphrasing wildly here), but there seems to be positive effects of making sure women are desired, and he linked in this blog-post from this spring where he summarizes research that shows just that.  It is interesting work (I will get to this), but I don’t think our fears are misplaced.

One of my masters students decided to do a paper where she analyzed affirmative action in India using principles of group processes, prejudice and stereotypes from Social Cognition.  A very important point (if I recall) is the issue of legitimacy. It is easy for affirmative action to become, in a way, more of the same, only that we switch groups.  Instead of incompetent men  of a certain class, or caste or station getting the plum positions, you have switched the groups to women and minority groups.  Meet the new boss… You want to do social engineering, it is quite possible that you need to make sure people feel that the purpose is to open for talent that previously were shut out, rather than switching which group is the darling group who no longer need to make an effort.  What one is after is equality of opportunity, not a replacement of a privileged class with another privileged class.

There really are downsides to this.  Razib (as David Hume, on Secular Right) posted about a black law professor who puts his LSAT on his CV, because he continuously confronts students who are tempted to treat him as something less, someone who got the choice position due to skin color, and not to ability.

Or, the other possibility, that in the zeal of getting some numbers to look more representative, people are put in positions that are well beyond their abilities, and thus will fail.  (And, the positions can be beyond abilities due to many reasons, of course.) This will neither be good for the failing, or for the perception of the minority status.  (Alas, we tend to see people of outgroups as representative of that outgroup, and then paint the whole outgroup with that feature, whereas we are highly aware of the individuality of our ingroup.  This is so well established in Social Psychology that I think any old intro book in the topic will do as a source, but I give you this Wikipedia entry).

There’s also, perhaps, the self-doubt that follows. Did you want me for my mind, or for my minority status?

Affirmative action can so easily become a cargo-cult type of attempt.  Let’s adjust the numbers so they look nice and equal, and then we have fixed the problem.  When that doesn’t happen, it is easy to fall back on some sloppy reason that (group x) are just not HARD WIRED to do this kind of stuff, so let us not bother.

I think that women who do not want affirmative action are highly aware of how fraught this is, and how badly it can be used against you.  Whatever it is that causes the differences in numbers is not going to be remedied simply by that kind of crude measure.

The research Curt presents is interesting, but just a handful of studies that need to be replicated and extended.  Laurie Rudman has spent a long time looking at the social cognition involved in gender discrimination, and one thing I like about the work is that she looks at both how men and women react to men and women who are not behaving according to expectations, and women are certainly active participants, not passive victims in this. It just can so easily become an us vs. them narrative where someone exclaims “men are animals” at some point.  As the face-book status says, it is complicated.

Also, when I read the summary of difference in competitiveness  I got a little…woman that never evolved, there (from Sarah Blaffer Hrdy). Women are quite capable of being competitive, of striving for status, and being ambitious.  In an unrelated skimming “competitive parenting” was mentioned, and I can certainly – notice – competitive mothering going on, as well as other types of intra-sexual competition. So, it may be that for this cohort, in this culture, in this domain, there are gender-differences.  Should we build policy from that?

There may also be stereotype awareness going on here. Somewhere, (god, I have so much unsourced material floating around in my brain) I was reading about women in academia, and one of them (Ivy league, I believe, some kind of biological sciences) complained that students stereotyped her as warm an motherly, which was all wrong, as she was ambitious and competitive (and that mismatch between expectation and actuality can be quite taxing on both parts.  I just read this Leander Chartrand and Bargh paper on the effects of mismatch – it looked at experience of warmth or cold, but leaned on older work the problems with mismatches).

My colleague Una Tellhed (then Gustavsson) did her dissertation on stereotype threat for women in salary-negotiations.  Turns out she had to keep her ideas very secret, because if the women (recruited from the economics school) knew what it was about, they reacted the opposite, and became more aggressive negotiators!. About the same time, there was work out on just this issue in the US, where they had gone a step further.  Women were less aggressive in negotiations, because they were aware of (implicitly or explicitly) that you would have to pay for being assertive in subsequent ill treatment.

Tracing reasons for differences in competitiveness is also not easy.  Is it a temporary, culturally driven state, or will there always be some difference (in overall competitiveness, or in preferred domains), and I don’t think we know.  There’s a fun talk on itunesU where Moshe Hoffman looks at patriarchal and matrilocal groups (and in the end, lefties and righties!) to try to tease out whether differences in risk aversion and competitiveness is due to cultural pressures or have a biological basis. (I found a copy of the presentation here).

The second bit of research Curt went through was interesting, and one can possibly take policy ideas from this.  These days, at least in the west, at least in Academia (and probably in lots of other power-areas also), if you have not found any qualified, competent women to enter the pool of candidates, you simply have not looked enough.  It is kind of like when my kids cry they can’t find their shoes and they have looked “everywhere”, and all it takes is a look in the living room, or possibly under the sofa… There are lots of highly accomplished women around.

And, then, of course, we have that piece of research making the rounds right now, which is kind of embarrassing.  Oops.  (I’m linking in Steve Hsu’s blog comment on it. It has a link to the study, but also some of his comments, which I think are interesting). There is also  some good commentary here, on Uta Frith’s group “Science and Shopping” about the study, and commentary of possible reasons.

Perhaps what needs to be done is what they did in orchestras – the equivalent of hearing someone playing behind a screen, so that gender is not salient.  That is an equal opportunity manipulation – one that I suspect women may very well agree with – even those that do not agree with quotas (that is of course an empirical question, and I’m just relying on my very own gut here- which can at times be misleading).

So, Curt mentioned on twitter that he looked forward to see my thoughts on this (because I mentioned that the Twitter format was a little limiting.  Maybe I need to practice my brevity).  So, I kind of felt compelled to put down my thoughts as they are.

And, you know, I’m a woman who keep evolving (aimlessly as evolution is), so I may very well alter my views as i get jostled around on the cultural oceans I inhabit.

Let me end with this – as a proud member of the small, but distinguished, facebook group of Women in Mathematical Psychology.

How it Works

Now, don’t let the stereotype threat get you!

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