Diversity III: Diverse equalities

This post is a follow-up to my post on the wage gap, and my post on the glass ceiling. In these posts I showed that there is no reason to assume that gender discrimination is at work in determining the salaries or promotion chances of women.

In The Netherlands, “equality” is generally seen as an ultimate good. Which is why underrepresentation of women and minorities in professions and organizations is often seen as inherently wrong. Certain political movements have made fighting inequality into a main feature of their program. For instance, minister Jet Bussemaker is quite miffed about the fact that only 18% of full professors in The Netherlands are female, and she therefore forces universities to appoint more women to such positions. For 100 new female full professors she makes extra money available for the next five years, and on top of that she also wants universities to put women on 200 chairs that are currently held by men.

Basically, this means that Bussemaker wants to change the top selection criterion for appointing someone to the position of full professor from “we want the best person for the job” to “we want someone who has no Y-chromosome.”

For me, a major question is why she (and with her many others, such as professor Derks) believes that the underrepresentation of women in this area is the result of “inequality.” The straightforward line of thinking that is commonly held, is that 50% of society consists of women, and thus, if women were treated equal to men, 50% of full professors would be women. Naturally, such a thought process is too simplistic. It is a silly notion to divide Dutch citizens according to particular criteria such as gender, immigration status, age, sexual orientation, or physical attributes, and then expect that the percentages you end up with are reflected by a certain profession. As I showed in the previous two posts, if you take into account unequal participation in the job market, the 18% female full professors that we have now are close to what you may expect if men and women have equal opportunities (assuming that in academics the statistics for job participation are about average for The Netherlands).

The point is that what minister Bussemaker and others like her want to see are not equal opportunities, but equal outcomes. What they fail to acknowledge is that if you confront 100 men and 100 women who already hold a good job with the prospect of another job with more status, offset by a greater workload and higher responsibility, 80 of the 100 men will accept that job, while 80 of the 100 women will walk away. In our society where people are given a lot of freedom of choice, women tend to make different choices than men, and thus equal opportunities do not lead to equal outcomes.

Assuming that minister Bussemaker does not want to take away freedom of choice, there are only two ways open to get a higher percentage of female professors: either making men less ambitious, or lowering the requirements for women (and only for women) to get the job. I have no idea how you would accomplish the first, so I am not surprised that she chose the latter.

Yes, I know that there are female associate professors who are ready to become full professors. But there are far more male associate professors with the same ambition. In an equal-opportunities environment, which we have now, you end up with more men being appointed than women, because with the same quality there are more men than women available for the job. When I say that Bussemaker lowers the requirements for women to become professors, I am not saying that that puts universities in a position where they are forced to promote female associate professors who are not ready to become full professors — I am only saying that these women no longer have to compete on a level playing field with men. It is possible for them to do a worse job than some men would do, and still be chosen for promotion over those men.

Professor Derks states that women do not want to adapt to the standards set by men. I assume that she means that many women want to be full professors in a part-time job with a nice balance between their work and home life. This sounds a lot like having your cake and eating it too. In practice, as with most high-demand jobs, being a full professor entails sacrificing much of your home life for your work. It is really a tough job. Maybe that is a standard set by men, but it means that if, as a woman, in an equal-opportunities environment you want to compete with men, you have to meet that standard. By replacing the equal-opportunities environment with an equal-outcomes environment, women can get away with doing a worse job than men.

In sports, women usually do not compete with men, as men tend to be physically stronger and faster. Consequently, female sports are seen as inferior to male sports. By creating a special academic division for women to compete in, where standards are lowered, you create a situation in which female academic achievements are seen as inferior to male academic achievements. If I were a female professor today, who clearly got the job because she competed successfully on a level playing field with men, I would not be happy about that.

The 100 extra positions that Bussemaker creates are filled by women only, which leads to a situation where some top-quality men see full professorships going to women who, even if they do a good job, do a worse job than these men would do. And if the rest of Bussemaker’s plans get executed, they know that their chances to ever be promoted are diminishing rapidly, as they have to compete for a decreasing number of positions. If I was a young man who was contemplating a career in academics today, considering the unequal treatment of men and women and the lowered career prospects, I would probably choose a job outside the academic world, regardless of how much I love scientific research. All in all, the policies of Bussemaker may do serious harm to the quality of Dutch academics.

In conclusion, the belief that forcing universities to appoint more female professors will resolve some sort of societal injustice is misguided. In fact, it creates a societal injustice by lowering the standards that women need to meet to become full professors, while increasing them for men.

I wish to point out that there is another solution for the problem that certain female associate professors are not getting promoted, even though they are ready for it. That solution is to make the promotion to full professor an automated process when you meet certain criteria. This is the case in many countries outside The Netherlands, such as the UK. If you do the work, you get the position. I am in high favor of that.

Making the promotion to full professor based on individual accomplishments rather than the academic structure with only a limited number of available chairs, has the added benefit that there will be more full professorships in The Netherlands, and thus the requirements for the job may be slightly lowered for men as well as women.

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2 Responses to Diversity III: Diverse equalities

  1. Ren Vleer says:

    I would like to add another viewpoint here. It is based on a book of Ap Dijksterhuis that I read recently. It’s called in Dutch : “Het slimme onderbewuste” which would translate into something like “The smart uncouncious”.
    What I learned from that book is that decision making is not as councious as we all expect it to be. That uncouncious mental processes play a dominant role.
    When you take that into account, you can rethink the argument that men tend to be more ambitious than women. Could it be that due to the fact that we have more men in high positions, influences the uncouncious decision making of both men and women resulting in this difference.
    And if that is the case, is it still valid to talk about equal possibilities?
    And if the answer is no, and you look at ways to resolve that, is forcing a breakthrough via positive discrimination not a good way to change the uncouncious perceptions, when indeed more women are seen at the top?
    One last remark. I don’t believe in one best choice for a certain position. A selection process is difficult and never fully objective. So when you select one out of a number of candidates, chances that you select really the very best are a matter of luck. And for the quality of the organisation it will not be that much of a difference. So when you have a number of more or less equally qualified candidates, picking some extra women won’t harm the organisation but will help creating more ambitious women.

  2. pspronck says:

    I am pretty sure that unconscious processes are involved in defining people’s ambitions and in decision-making. An argument that is often given is that we live in a culture that defines particular roles for men and women, which means that people adapt to those roles and thus we end up with more ambitious men and less ambitious women. There is probably at least some truth in that.

    Psychological research has shown time and again that it is simply the case that (on average) men place far more emphasis than women on status — regardless of background. Whether genes or culture are the cause of that, does not matter. I personally don’t think there is anything wrong with being less ambitious. In fact, I believe that ambition is a burden on happiness.

    The fact that culture is partly responsible for making women less ambitious does not entail that we thus do not live in an “equal-opportunities” environment. I recently spoke to five female professors, who all said that they never had been obstructed by their gender in making their ambitions come true. That’s what “equal opportunities” means.

    You might think that putting more women in full professorships might enkindle more ambition in women to aspire for such a job. But I hardly think that would help. Role models already exist. If ambition is stifled by culture, then that started during childhood — seeing 30% women as full professors instead of 20% is not going to suddenly raise ambitions in women. Besides, I wonder whether social engineering in this respect is such a good idea (but that warrants another post).

    There is also the principle of the matter. I think that you simply have to try to get the best person for the job, regardless of gender. If you instead insert politics in the process and are giving some people preference based on other factors than their qualities, you are causing unwanted effects. In this case, I think that one of the worst things that will happen is that you actually drive away the best men from academics, meaning that you end up with an environment that is of lower quality than it is now — not because you have more women, but because the best men said “screw that, I can do better elsewhere.”

    As for there being more than one “best” person for the job — I believed that for a long time, but I changed my mind. I was in a whole series of vacancy processes recently, and I discovered that it is really hard to find more than one person who meets all the standards that we set. If you shrink the pool of candidates, you are going to end up with an overall worse selection. (Side note: while the candidates that we got were, in general, about 80% men and 20% women, in the end we filled half the positions with women — because we thought they were the best fit for those positions, and not because of their gender.)

    But, as I said, I have absolutely nothing against more women becoming full professors — in fact, I would be very happy to have more people have a career in academics. That’s why I propose the solution of basing promotions on personal accomplishments rather than the restricted process that we have now, which is already scaring many people away from academics.

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