Thursday, May 22, 2008

Affirmative Action?

Last week, I bought, downloaded, and watched an interesting documentary called Indoctrinate U. The film was political, so I won't mention much about it here. But there was one topic that got me thinking: affirmative action. In the film's case, the discussion centered more around racial issues, but the same ideas apply to gender.

The big question for us is this: Do we want technology employers to attempt hiring more women to promote equality and/or diversity?

In my opinion, definitely not.

There is only one situation where hiring a woman because she's a woman makes sense to me, and that is when the range of candidates are narrowed down to a few that have no distinguishing skills, and differ only by sex. If there aren't very many females on the team already, and having some different viewpoints and ideas would benefit this team, then by all means go for the woman! (You can make the same argument for other groups of people as well, depending on the makeup you currently have and the diversity you are looking for.)

But to specifically look for women to hire simply because you don't have very many? There are plenty of women who can get in by their merit alone, so doing this not only undermines that fact, but increases the probability of not finding the best people for the job.

You might say that no employers actively seek minorities in this way. If that were true, would there be diversity competitions like this? Or assertions that a "union has to make a conscious effort to want to hire women and minorities" (source)?

But don't get me wrong. Trying to make your workplace friendly and welcoming to minorities like women is not a bad thing. Just let them come on their own if they are interested, and evaluate them on merit alone. Don't hire a woman so you can meet your diversity quota this year.

The same line of thinking can apply to university admissions. I'm not sure if the same thing happens in Canada, but it seems in the States (according to Indoctrinate U) that affirmative action can sometimes favor visible minorities to increase diversity on campus. Not good! I know that we have work to do in our School of Computer Science to make it more appealing for women to join us both as students and as faculty, but we certainly should not start bringing women in just for the numbers. Luckily, I have not seen any evidence that anyone here has tried this, or wants to.

You may have seen my previous post that mentioned the Women in Science and Engineering group I'm helping rebuild. You may be wondering why, as a member of this group, I am against seeking out women to join our school. Well, my goals with that group are not to increase our numbers in the way described above, but rather to show women who may have already been interested in the subject but were too afraid to give it a try just how rewarding it can be. I also want to make the atmosphere and support network better for the women already here, hoping to increase their chances of success. I do believe their is a difference, however subtle it may seem.


Christian Muise said...

I don't think the difference should be subtle, and kudos for pointing it out ;).

Gail Carmichael said...

So true! Maybe it's not subtle, or maybe people just don't think about it much?

Anonymous said...

Hi Gail,

We thought hard about this when deciding whether to run the GNOME Women's Summer Outreach program. Our conclusion was that it was beneficial to offer internships limited to women, because the uptake for GNOME's regular Summer of Code internships (181 male applicants, no female) had been so poor. It seemed clear that we needed a bootstrapping process to create role models in that community, and that "if women want to apply, they will" wasn't working out.

I'm not sure whether any of this generalizes to standard employment, though. The proportion of women working as programmers commercially is much higher than the proportion who volunteer in free software projects.

- Chris.

Gail Carmichael said...

You know Chris, the situation you bring up really is a tough one. There is yet again a subtle difference between coming up with programs just for women to help them be unafraid of giving it a shot, and hiring women into jobs to meet quotas.

I would probably have to say that I don't totally disagree with the former (which is what your program seems to be); heck, I won a girls-only scholarship from Google and ran an all-girls mini-course! But is it essentially the same thing as the latter? Or is it a mechanism to get those women who might like software and computing interested, and nothing more?

I suppose we must be careful when treading around this line in the sand...

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