Bioethics Blogs

Affirmative Action for Women in Mathematics: Fighting Discrimination with Discrimination?

The University of Melbourne (the most prestigious university in my hometown) has advertised three senior positions in mathematics. Like some (but not all) other STEM subjects, mathematics has a low proportion of female academics. In part, this is a pipeline problem: women are significantly less likely to do mathematics degrees than men (28% of maths students at Melbourne are female). The head of the school of mathematics and statistics at the university hopes that the appointments might help by fixing the leaking pipeline: the three appointments will provide role models and mentors for female students and might encourage more of them to enrol, finish and go on to higher degrees.

In many ways, it might be preferable to fix the problem by hiring women who outcompete men for positions open to all. But with fewer applicants, change would be – has been – slow through that approach. Moreover, even when everyone acts with a good will (most do, I suspect, but not all), implicit bias may lead to biased hiring practices. Implicit bias is not as powerful as some think. It is unlikely to lead to a man being appointed over a clearly better qualified woman. But when applicants are all more or less equally qualified (as they typically are when a final decision is being made between the top 4 or 5 candidates), a small effect may make a decisive difference, and a very slight bias in favour of men may lead to a large disparity.

So there are justifications for this kind of approach.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.