Posted by: jonkatz | December 15, 2009

Discrimination in college admissions?

I’m not suggesting any connection between the Women in Theory workshop and an article I saw recently in the Washington Post, but posting about the former reminded me of the latter.

According to the article, admissions data from several colleges in the DC region will be reviewed to determine whether preferential treatment was given to male applicants. It seems that, at these universities, the number of women applying was much higher than the number of men; therefore (allegedly) these universities were admitting men at higher rates in an effort to achieve gender balance.

Why is it ok to have “affirmative action” when it increases the representation of women in fields where they are under-represented, but not when it does the same for men?

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Responses

  1. They should really examine the gender disparity in college attendance on a national scale. What if more women apply to liberal arts colleges and more men apply to engineering colleges? Then it balances out and would result in discrimination if one gender is being helped more than the other in the respective institutions where they are underrepresented.

  2. Why is it ok to have “affirmative action” when it increases the representation of women in fields where they are under-represented, but not when it does the same for men?

    IF the purpose of affirmative action is to correct for past discrimination (putting aside the question of whether AA works/makes sense for this purpose), THEN it may be OK give preferential treatment to women, but not men.

    If the purpose of AA is to increase the participation of under-represented groups, then it ought to apply to whichever groups are under-represented at the time — with the (enormous) caveat that people can be grouped in countless different ways.

  3. Of course it’s not okay. This drives me crazy, and I’m involved in a bunch of women-in-science stuff. I went to a talk on (the Maryland) campus a year ago given by someone from the NSF about the current trends on women in science … she celebrated some recent moves towards gender parity in engineering, computer science, and the physical sciences, but completely glossed over the fact that in many fields women were already the vast majority, in a few cases 90% or more. If anything, she came across as happy about that — as in, look, we’re already winning here and here! But of course more women is not the same thing as equality. For true fairness, we have to work on including men in traditionally female-dominated fields just as we work on including women in the male-dominated ones.

  4. > For true fairness, we have to work on including men in traditionally female-dominated fields just as we work on including women in the male-dominated ones.

    Michelle, *why* should we do all that? Shouldn’t we just concentrate on fair treatment of everyone irrespectively of the field, sex, and everything? Why should we fight against domination (in quantity) per se, be it men or women domination?

  5. IF the purpose of affirmative action is to correct for past discrimination

    If the purpose of AA is to increase the participation of under-represented groups

    The overall goal is increasing participation of under-represented groups (there are many reasons for this ranging from purely practical to philosophical).

    However, this cannot be achieved unless the effects of past discrimination are addressed. AA is simply a “technique” used to address it.

    The debates around AA are usually a confused mix of at least two separate questions: whether AA is effective (in addressing past discrimination), and whether AA is “fair” to the people not receiving it.

    The former is relatively easy to measure but the latter is more complicated and it is almost impossible to have a rational discussion about it. One reason for this is that everyone has a different interpretation of exactly what AA is (in terms of the policies).

  6. To make my point slightly more explicit…

    If the purpose of AA is to increase the participation of under-represented groups, then it ought to apply to whichever groups are under-represented at the time

    Yes, the purpose of AA is increasing the participation of under-represented groups. But if a group has not suffered from past discrimination it may not make sense to apply AA to it.

  7. Michelle, *why* should we do all that? Shouldn’t we just concentrate on fair treatment of everyone irrespectively of the field, sex, and everything? Why should we fight against domination (in quantity) per se, be it men or women domination?

    E.Hirsch, I suppose I’m assuming that any field grossly dominated by one particular gender is that way because of social stigma/pressures/prejudices. (I very much doubt that men inherently like math that much more than women, or that women inherently like elementary education that much more than men.) If prejudices are that deeply entrenched in hiring procedures and workplace attitudes, it’s pretty much impossible to have achieved “fair treatment of everyone.” Noticing the existence of those prejudices and taking measures to counteract and un-learn them seems like a pretty obvious way to move toward fairness “irrespectively of the field, sex, and everything.”

  8. Michelle, I do accept that math is not “inherent” to one particular sex. I object generalizations of these statements.

    For example, imagine a world where no discrimination happens on any level (including cultural). However, the ability to give birth *is* still inherent to women. One can argue also that the desire and ability to take care of kids, especially newborn babies, does correlate with sex. Thus the fact that there are more female baby-sitters than male ones is apparently not something one should fight.

    A simple averaging argument, however, implies that there may be professions where there are more men than women, and still no discrimination happens.

    I believe that when we talk about college admissions there are much more efficient and reliable techniques to avoid discrimination (*why should college be aware of the sex of applicant*?) than trying to adjust the percentage to some prescribed “correct” figure — and I tried to show that we do not know what is correct this year in this city for this profession.

  9. @E.Hirsch in the context of giving birth and taking care of babies etc:

    I think I like that argument. Another example would perhaps be Military services. It might not make too much of a sense to increase participation of women in military who go over to the battle to fight and launch bullets…


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