Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Starving affirmative action in times of famine?

So I had a horrible realization: if jobs and funding are scarce, affirmative action is the first thing that's going to go out the window.

Here's my logic:

1. Jobs and funding are scarce right now.

I blame
a) overenrollment of graduate schools creates too many applicants (selfish universities want TAs)
b) tax money going overseas to pay for bombs instead of biology
c) the scarce funding makes schools wary about hiring new faculty, since they want people who will make it to tenture (i.e. be able to secure funding consistently)

2. Affirmative action works in times of plenty, because the good, privileged people still get jobs first, and then the good, underprivileged/minority people get the jobs that are leftover.

If there are plenty of jobs to go around, it doesn't pain search committees too much to take a chance on somebody who might be otherwise seen as 'risky'. Plus there are bonus points for diversity.

Alternatively, in times of plenty, if one search committee has to pass on someone who is obviously good, they can always reassure themselves by knowing this person is likely to get hired somewhere, as opposed to not at all.

3. Affirmative action won't work in times of famine, because nobody's going to pass over someone who seems to have all the advantages and take someone who might be risky. They want a sure thing: the surest thing they can find. The bonus points for diversity won't make up for that.



At 11:24 AM, Blogger dlamming said...

Well, something like 43% of biology postdocs are women, but only 26% of faculty. Nobody really knows why that is. I'm sure some of it might be due to bias and/or a lack of mentoring - but from my observations, some of it really is due to women deciding to take time off for kids, and then getting a job at a company. It'd be nice if more men participated in child-rearing, but I haven't seen that happen.

Anyway, I think choice B)bombs vs biology is the big problem.

At 8:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Next time I guess I'll just tell her to quit bitching since if she hates her lab so much she should leave, since frankly I'm tired of hearing it.

At 4:11 PM, Blogger Joolya said...

See, this is why I am in no hurry to graduate. I reckon I can sit out this administration.

DL: It would also help if workplaces (and I am thinking of a certain gigantic medical complex in a cold city full of scientists, here) had ample subsidized childcare so that students/post-docs/faculty (of both sexes) with kids could have a little flexibility and a little less stress on their families!

At 5:32 PM, Blogger dlamming said...

Joolya, I know there's some subsidized care for grad students in our gigantic medical complex. How badly does it suck?

At 8:03 AM, Anonymous Philzeelund@gmail.com said...

Why in the world would I ever pass over someone obviously qualified and known to me for someone "risky"? That's just not a rational hiring strategy. By the way, jobs and funding are always scarce. It's called competition.

Hiring the less qualified to do your R&D, especially in a small lab, is a lousy, not generous, thing to do, as it will end up hurting the qualified people who already work there. At best they need to work more to pick up the slack. At worst the unqualified hire will sink the biz and put them all out of work. I've seen that happen.

What you're talking about is charity. If I had to waste cash on the unqualified, I'd rather pay them to leech time and space and opportunity cost off a competitor, or to stay home. They do less damage that way. Sorry, I'm into race/sex blind merit based hiring only.

At 8:54 PM, Blogger Propter Doc said...

I guess there are risks, and there are risks. Personally, I don't believe in affirmative action. The best person for the job should get it regardless of gender, race or religion.

But at the moment, I am a postdoc in a group where my research field is a major departure from anything they've done before. I was a major risk for my PI but its paying off.

At 10:27 AM, Blogger Joolya said...

hi DL,
as i don't have any offsrping i can't speak from personal experience, but i do know that if i were thinking about reproducing any time in the next two years i would put my name on the waiting list now! and even then it wouldn't be cheap ...

At 7:38 PM, Blogger NeuroChick said...

I've always been sort of torn on the affirmative action issue. Of course I think it's beneficial to have professors and students from all different backgrounds. On the other hand, though, I think when you reach a certain level that decisions should be merit based. I'd much rather be taught by a white man who's an excellent teacher and really knows the field than, to put it bluntly, an "affirmative action hire" who doesn't know how to explain things and got their job in the name of "diversity."

I think once you've earned a PhD and have worked as a postdoc for a few years, you've clearly reached a level of education that is relatively rare for any ethnicity/sex/socioeconomic group. At that point, you've also built up enough of a professional background that affirmative action shouldn't really come in to play.

I know it's idealistic to say that everyone should just be evaluated on the basis of their work and not on their ethnicity or sex. But, as a woman, I'd rather know that I got my job because I'm a good scientist, not because I'm female and they needed to fill a quota.

At 8:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ms. PhD's observation reminds me of Shelley Powers' essay
"When we are Needed":

When jobs are plentiful, diversification within the job pool is not seen as a threat. In fact, diversification can be seen as a way of extending one’s power over a larger base of people. [...] However, when jobs are threatened, any change in the status quo will be seen as a risk–even those in an industry populated by people who consider themselves free of bias.


We tend, when stressed as a group, to bond with those who we see as providing a protective shell around us. By this I mean those who are most familiar, and who can help us, and we can help in turn. In other words: white male geeks bond with other white male geeks.


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