If you’re not the sharpest knife in the drawer and you’re a white male, then you’re just a “dumb person” with few rights or privileges. But if you’re also a “minority” or female, then this works to your advantage. “Affirmative action” is a polite way of saying, “Not the best qualified, but we can use this person to keep the diversity gestapo at bay.” If you are a white male who happens to be of superior ability, then you have little to worry about; affirmative action was not designed to victimize you. It was designed to victimize white males who are less than brilliant in their respective fields, i.e. most of the rest of us.
Affirmative action for women is nothing new, but human stupidity (who sends me a lot of stuff) has brought my attention to a more novel way to persecute white men: Affirmative action for women in math tests. From the link he sent me:
Affirmative action for women in math contests boosts participation without dropping results
Despite advances in many areas, women are still underrepresented in the upper levels of corporations, electoral politics, and some scientific research fields. This lack of parity is all the more striking because, in much of the developed world, women’s educational achievements have surpassed those of men. (In 2009 in the United States, 57 percent of currently enrolled students were female, a trend that has been fairly stable over several decades.) This imbalance has been ascribed to two factors: continuing gender discrimination, and lower desire for competitiveness among women.
Focusing on the competitiveness aspect, a new study indicates that policy-based initiatives can increase women’s participation and competitiveness in math and the quality of the resulting work. The particular experiment performed by Loukas Balafoutas and Matthias Sutter, released February 2 by Science, involved three methods that provided an initial advantage to women in a math competition. The authors found that, in each case, women entered the competitions more readily, but the aggregate performance of the participants was unaffected, and sometimes even improved.
The common feature in all three methods is an affirmative action approach: the active promotion of the underrepresented group. Passive methods (such as increasing potential rewards for everyone) do improve participation by women, but they also improve men’s performance as well, which leaves the gender gap in place. Affirmative action, on the other hand, not only changes the odds of success by women, but (according to the authors of a related study) also increases their confidence and willingness to compete in the first place…
Left unexplained is why it is a bad thing if women are “underrepresented” in certain fields. A commenter points out that there doesn’t seem to be much concern that men are underrepresented in traditionally female fields. I would add that there doesn’t seem to be any concern that women are largely absent from fields such as garbage collection and mining.
While there is nothing wrong with trying to boost the participation of women in certain professions, if we might be missing out on important talent, I still don’t understand why it is a bad thing that there are gender gaps. It doesn’t seem to bother most people that men are physically stronger than women, so why would it be a problem if there are more male math-geniuses than female ones?
Predictably, most of the comments call a spade a spade and don’t fall for the obvious double-speak. One commenter, who calls himself Dr Jay (no relation), tries to justify the practice by writing:
I think people are getting hung up on “affirmative action” and missing the forest for the trees. The key question you have to ask yourself is the following: what is the purpose of the competition?
If the competition is simply intended to identify whoever scores the best in the competition, then there really isn’t any call for intervention. But if the competition is intended to identify the most talented math students (a situation more analogous to real-world situations like job hunts), then you face an issue. The issue could be best summarized by noting the following two points:
1) Research has provided a pretty compelling indication that math talents are equally divided between the sexes (some of this has been covered by Ars in the past).
2) Participation in math contests is not equally divided between the sexes.
So, a contest without intervention stands a good chance of not identifying the best talent. Providing an inducement that tackles issue 2 is a way of adjusting for that.
Now, there are all sorts of potential subtleties here – maybe you’re looking to fill a job that requires both math skills and competitiveness, etc. – that can influence how important it is to handle issue 2. And there are studies that could be done to clarify exactly what’s happening (the most obvious to me is determining whether women with exceptional talents are more likely to enter competitions). But i think the issues here are more subtle than a lot of people’s reactions to them.
But, by that reasoning (and I’m not convinced his claims are valid), we can just as easily claim that math talent is equally distributed among heterosexuals and homosexuals (proportionally), right-handed people and left-handed people, innies and outies, people who like classic rock and those who prefer heavy metal etc. Would this mean that we must search out statistical variations between the above groups and then try to remedy them? Of course not; it all boils down to politics. Women are considered “oppressed”, therefore we are told we must guarantee them equal outcomes for prestigious positions.
Where will it all end? it is not hard to foresee a future where smart people are penalized in all academic tests and strong people must wear weights in order to offset their advantage over weak people. I remember reading a science fiction story about just such a scenario once; it described a world few of us would want to live in.