Should There Be Affirmative Action for Women in STEM? October 9, 2012Posted by The Raise Project in Uncategorized.
Hold the (male-designed) phone!
A new Yale study has revealed that there is a pervasive and unconscious bias on university campuses that favors male science students over their female counterparts. The result is fewer women in scientific professions.
What to do, what to do? Quotas? Points? Read on….
Let’s Call It ‘Affirmative Effort’
Nancy Hopkins is a biology professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Updated September 30, 2012, 7:01 PM
Affirmative action has come to describe two very different types of efforts. One involves lowering standards to achieve diversity. The other does not lower standards, but rather involves taking action to overcome discrimination, including unconscious bias. This type – I’ll call it “affirmative effort,” is essential in providing a level playing field for women who aspire to STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) field careers. I can’t think of another way to confront the unconscious bias recently described in the Yale study.
Unconscious bias, which results in the undervaluation of women and their work, was discovered by psychologists more than 20 years ago. Numerous studies have documented its negative impact on women’s advancement in STEM fields. About 15 years ago universities began to address the problem, particularly at the faculty level, by using more rigorous data-driven approaches to assess merit in hiring, promotion, and compensation.
This “affirmative effort” has been highly successful, increasing the number of women faculty in STEM fields and ensuring equity. It has been less successful in eliminating the underlying problem, namely unconscious bias in the minds of both male and female faculty members, who continue to marginalize and undervalue women and their work in STEM fields.
People often ask, “But if a woman is really good enough, can’t she make it on her own? And can’t a conscious effort to help or support women even exacerbate the problem?” Examination of the data on how women have advanced in STEM fields shows that the answer to both questions is “no.” It’s like asking, “But couldn’t a really great runner win an Olympic race even if he had a 10 pound (invisible) weight strapped to his back?” Women make it by overcoming bias but often at a high cost and probably by not advancing to their full potential.
Affirmative action has become a derogatory term used unfairly to disparage women who advance purely on merit. But we cannot let the common misconception that bias no longer exists stop us from using “affirmative effort” to overcome the unconscious bias that still holds many women back.