Last month I wrote a surprisingly popular post about the possibility of unforeseen side effects that can come with female-friendly policies in academia. My basic argument was that giving only the women special treatment in some cases would create unbalanced incentives that could ultimately be detrimental to women in academia.
I was responding to a particular proposal, but those unintended consequences aren’t hard to find. Many policies that single out a particular group for special treatment often wind up doing some unintended harm (this is a general empirical rule of economics and policy making). Yesterday, the New York Times published a great story on women in academia, highlighting MIT’s extremely female-friendly policies and providing a balanced discussion on some of the gains and losses women have made in the traditionally male field of higher education.
Some of the examples from the article are similar to my prediction. There’s one story of an MIT policy that certain types of committees always have at least one woman, but with so few women on the faculty, ensuring their representation put an undue burden on their schedules. Sitting on committees takes time away from research–the only activity for which tenure-track professors are actually rewarded.
But I’m not writing this follow up to gloat about beating the paper of record to an issue. I’m admitting that on one critical component, I missed the boat completely. There’s a social aspect of these outcomes I didn’t address at all, and it’s extremely important. My analysis was grounded in economic reasoning and incentive structures, but I forgot about the ever-elusive “society” variable.
Pro-female policies can have a HUGE social drawback: they encourage an implicit assumption that successful females are academics of inferior quality, who leveraged a policy-driven advantage. Even a completely rational feminist would be forced to admit that certain types of policies would give advantages to at least some women, and would have to assign a non-zero probability that any given female academic was less qualified than a male occupying the same job. (Interestingly enough, in a system where men have all the advantages, not enough people arrive at the rational conclusion that men are less qualified on average than their female coworkers. This is a two-way street.)
The part of the article that will be most striking to some, and most blindingly obvious to others, is that despite being in a male-dominated system that tends to resit change, most female professors don’t want any diversity issues considered in tenure decisions. Why? Because tenure should be based on merit alone. If females suffer a disadvantage when they come up for tenure, it’s too late to fix it in the committee meeting. Compromising standards would undermine women far more than not giving them a break to start a family.
In short, I’d like to correct my former oversight and say that while it’s still incredibly important to evaluate incentive structures and be prepared for unintended consequences, when dealing with human interactions, you have to care about social implications too. In a complex system of humans, how something “looks” at first can often determine the impact better than any model or theoretical truth.
(If you don’t believe me, just ask Larry Summers.)