Sunday, January 29, 2006

Are Gender Preferences in Hiring always Sexist?

A good friend of mine, at another college, is in the middle of a job search for a new faculty member. Every member of his department is a man, and he expressed to me that he would prefer to hire a woman.

They have 4 excellent candidates to bring on campus and half are men and half are women. The front runner is a woman from an excellent PhD program, who gave a grand slam presentation, impressing everyone with her scholarship, energy and teaching skills. The whole department has unanimously decided to extend her the offer. So, my friend's wish to hire this woman should be soon fulfilled, right?

Not necessarily. The candidate is getting offers from more than one excellent school and so he is crossing his fingers and hoping they did a good job attracting her to his college. This worries my friend a great deal because it means they will go back to the pool and the resulting hire might be a man and not a woman.

What I think is worth analyzing here is that my male friend specifically wanted to hire a woman. When he said this to me I knew why (which I will get to in a moment), but I felt a bit uncomfortable. As I put my finger on why this bothered me, I quickly realized it had everything to do with the political drift of the country, and specfically how it is impacting colleges, and nothing to do with his preference for hiring a woman.

If my friend had been a mortgage banker and expressed that he wanted to hire a woman--something my brother often says to me--I would be less uncomfortable. When my brother says he is particularly interested in hiring women, I know that, in part, this has to do with profits for the company. He has recognized specific talents of his female employees in their dealings with brokers. These talents make them the highest earners of his sales team. When they make money, he makes money, the company makes money and the shareholders make money.

In that particular framework--higher profits--choosing a qualified female over a qualifed male rarely leads into a divisive and animated conversation about "reverse discrimination." Making profits is a rather respectable motivation in the largely politically conservative world that my brother inhabits.

When my friend expresses that he wants to hire a qualified female candiate over a qualified male candidate it raises the ire of the social conservatives, determined to prove that education has become feminized and slanted against boys and men.

But to judge my friend's preference as sexism--i.e. malicious discrimination against men--belies that the one making the judgement lives in a rather ideal world rather than the real world I find myself in. To explain what I mean, let me first clarify why my friend prefers to hire women.

Not only are the faculty in his department all men (and white, middle class, American), but the majority of majors are also men.

One might argue that the reason that more men are attracted to this major than women is because men are better suited to excel in this subject matter compared to women. Plenty of people have made this move, in part because it is so elegant and simple. If men are better at this subject, and we can demonstrate it through a biological study of the sexes, then we don't really have to tackle the more complicated questions about overt and/or unintentional, structural sexism.

In the case of my friend's discipline there is absolutely no evidence that men are more talented at grasping the material than women. (I am asking readers to trust me since I cannot reveal the discipline here for obvious reasons).

The reason my friend prefers to hire a woman is because he has noticed what a difference the presence of female faculty has made in other departments for attracting women majors into the field. As someone who teaches Philosophy, which is still a field largely dominated by men, I can attest that having not only one woman, but three in my small department has a profound impact on attracting women majors. We have almost equal numbers of men and women in my department, which is not true in the majority of Philosophy departments in the United States. In my career as a student, I have been rather lucky to work with some women mentors, but that was the result of a conscious choice to change from one Ph.D. program to another. Before making that choice, I had never been in a Philosophy department with a tenured woman professor.

This fact might seem irrelevant to a reader unsympathetic to feminism. Why should it matter who teaches you a subject? The gender of the professor has nothing to do with the content of the course? Right?

Well, yes and no. For some very tough and determined female students, the fact that everyone who teaches your classes is male will make no impact on your choice to study the subject. Moreover, the fact that your parents knew nothing about the subject you want to pursue and didn't encourage your intellectual curiosity about it won't matter either.

But, many young girls who never see women in a profession, or whose mothers or fathers do not encourage her to pursue this profession, won't naturally gravitate towards the field.

Many young girls grow up with countless messages--some very direct, others indirect--that conspire against them studying a field or pursuing a career. I cannot tell you how many young female students I have had who say that logic is too hard and that they just aren't analytic. They make this pronouncement long before they have ever taken a course in logic or Philosophy. When I succeed in talking some of these young women into my class and give them a brief introduction to argument, fallacies, or formal logic, they are often amazed at their interest and talent in the area.

I have also had many female students amazed that someone who looks like me (whatever that means) teaches Philosophy. This reminds me, btw, of a line from Immanuel Kant about women who try to study Philosophy:

“[Women] who have their heads stuffed with Greek, like Mrs. Dacier, or carry on profound disputes about mechanics, like the marchioness of Chastelet, might have a beard to boot . . .” [Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1763)]

It is in this context that I claim that anyone who thinks my friend's preference to hire a woman is malicious sexism is living in a different reality than I am. Prefering to hire a very qualified and talented female professor over a male is, in some ways, similar to my brother's desire to hire female salespeople: it is good for "business." A female professor might bring in a broader pool of students into the major.

Having a young female professor teach a subject like Philosophy (my field) however, does not guarantee, by any means, that more women will enter the field. It does not even guarantee that some of the indirect sexism will be rooted out. When I say indirect sexism, I have something like this in mind: the presumption that men are naturally better at doing Philosophy, e.g. formal logic, abstract reasoning, linear thinking, etc.

The presumption that men are better suited at Philosophy than women are has been around since the inception of Western Philosophy. Women were considered too emotional, too vain, too frivolous, or too mercurial to take up a demanding and rigorous field like Philosophy. For 2500 years, almost every canonical figure of Western Philosophy has made this claim. Tradition changes slowly.

The result of presuming that women cannot do something, and then directly preventing women from doing it, for about 2450 0f the 2500 years in which folks have been doing it will leave a mark. But, once you allow women into a profession and more and more enter, the presumption that women cannot do something will slowly fade away.

In the years that data has been collected about the number of women earning Ph.D.s in Philosophy in the United States (1949-Present), the number of women getting Ph.Ds has increased from 18% to 33% in 2004. This is good news to me. The number of women getting the highest degree possible in the field of Philosophy has nearly doubled in roughly 50 years, and that is despite the fact that everyone from the Pythagoreans to my undergraduate Philosophy of Language Professor said that women cannot do Philosophy.

Having women role models in field that was formerly prohibited to women certainly helps to combat a rather long standing and entrenched view that women cannot do X.

So, there are good reasons to prefer a qualified female candidate over a male that have nothing to do with a conspiracy to prevent men from succeeding in the classroom. The history of education, particularly the institutions of higher learning, have actually kept women out and conspired against their success both directly and indirectly.