A friend of mine is considered a minority in her research field, for being female. Recently, her advisor wanted to nominate her paper for an award sponsored by a kind of Women's Engineering Society. (Not actually the WES; I don't want to give away field-specific information for her sake.) To qualify for the award, the student must identify as female. She therefore asked her advisor not to nominate her, saying that she does not want to compete for an award where identifying as female is a prerequisite.

Her rationale is essentially that while she does identify as (mostly) female, she does not think it's fair to restrict award eligibility based on attributes outside of someone's control, such as gender. (There are also subissues, with the award eligibity requirements treating gender in a binary fashion, and my friend viewing gender as a spectrum.) She said she would be happy to participate in an award program sponsored by a women's society if the gender prerequisite weren't there.

After much debate, we further boiled down the issue to the following question:

Do awards with gender identity requirements help or hurt the minorities they intend to support?

We are looking for studies and statistics to answer this question; not just anecdotes.

(A side question is whether her individual refusal to participate could hurt the community she is a part of. For example, a snowball effect: if a large number of people refuse to participate in the very programs designed for them, perhaps the programs lose funding and then cease to exist for other members of the minority group who do wish to participate. Or perhaps the reputation of the award just goes down. I would be curious to know if there are documented cases of this happening.)

Note: my friend gave permission to post and update this question.

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    I'm surprised so many people think this is opinion-based... I genuinely thought there existed some objective studies on the effects of gender-based awards. If I reward the question to solicit studies specifically, could we re-open it?
    – user108403
    Nov 11, 2019 at 19:31
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    Yes, I think that soliciting studies and adding the tag reference-request could help. Probably also limit the question to point 1. Nov 11, 2019 at 22:39
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    @cbeleitessupportsMonica Hmm, I'm not sure "being a protected minority ... instead of for academic achievements" is a correct characterization here, but I take your points Nov 13, 2019 at 2:21
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    @AzorAhai: sorry, that expression was a bit sarcastic, but the suspicion is one I've met. The bad thing is that IMHO these suspicions (that I do find I cannot always dismiss as clearly unfounded (!)) may contribute to keep or even strengthen some particular problems of discrimination: namely, that "women have to be twice as good as men to get the position" becomes now: "the [easiest] way for a women to establish that she got the position for professional achievements and not for being a woman is to be twice as good as any male competitor"... Nov 13, 2019 at 2:36
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    @cbeleitessupportsMonica I'm a bit confused as to your earlier points, but regarding your last suggestion: my friend actually did ask her advisor to submit to a general contest, and he said it wasn't good enough. Perhaps that particular general contest truly is more competitive; perhaps the gender-based award's prestige is somehow already "diluted" because of its narrower scope.
    – user108403
    Nov 13, 2019 at 9:29

3 Answers 3


I applaud your friend for refusal to participate on ethical grounds. I think your second question can be answered in the negative. But not making a public statement leaves the (unfortunate) status quo intact.

The first question however is, at this time, pretty opinion based and some research might actually help settle the question. It isn't my field, so it is possible that something has been researched and reported.

But we are in a time of change. The past was bad. We hope the future will be better. But there is still observable discrimination against women and many others, especially gender fluid individuals. Hopefully this will sort itself out if enough people get enlightened. But there are observable disparities in treatment even when it is (largely) unintended. And those things won't just dissipate without pushback. Individuals of "good will" need to be part of the pushback even (especially) when they aren't part of people and groups who are discriminated against.

But (opinion), if such awards tend to highlight the underlying problems, then they might be useful. And I hope that such things can go away in the future. A future in which individuals are judged only for their own accomplishments and not, at least in part, for things over which no one has any control.

I believe that more than one Nobel Prize has been given to a male whose female student actually did the work and had the breakthrough.

Fifty years ago, in the US, we thought, through the civil rights movement, that we were approaching a better future. Sadly progress has been slow, at best. Maybe stalled.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. (Attributed to several people, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

  • I've updated the question... hoping it gets re-opened
    – user108403
    Nov 12, 2019 at 9:11
  • As an aside: More generally, how many Nobel Prizes have been given to supervisors for the work of their students?
    – user2768
    Nov 12, 2019 at 10:44
  • I believe you meant "things" in your third para [too short to edit] Nov 12, 2019 at 22:43
  • @AzorAhai, thanks, indeed.
    – Buffy
    Nov 12, 2019 at 23:07
  • "But (opinion), if such awards tend to highlight the underlying problems, then they might be useful": I'm sorry, personally, I'm not willing to be useful to that extent if the award may hurt me professionally (and I do see a number of mechanisms how that can happen). I thus feel a need to push back a bit: if we want to judge accomplishments instead of gender or the like, IMHO we had better start being crystal-clear transparently judging accomplishments rather than mixing (intransparently) accomplishment with gender. And think how to treat people equally regardless of ... (+1, btw) Nov 13, 2019 at 2:45

Key here is that awards with identity requirements, gender or otherwise, may hurt the level of accomplishment assessed by the individual, and others, even as they have positive effects on the status and abilities of the aggregate minority group they support.

Often, there is some lessening of achievement associated with being awarded in a subcategory. The fact that no one suggests gender segregating Nobel prizes (right?) is as telling as the struggle to unite men's and women's football, or the rarity of academic awards with a male gender identity requirement (they do exist, but arguably server a very different purpose).

Certainly, gender quotas in faculty hire processes are a related mechanism that have this undesired effect. I have counseled more than one friend who was indirectly or (in one unfortunate case) directly informed the department 'needed a minority hire'. I have also heard colleagues disparage new hires as 'only because they are' whatever they are. The concerns of the hired and the disparaging align: did the person really deserve the job. I personally support quota mechanisms, regardless of these negative consequences, and for a selfish reason: I prefer working in diverse departments.

In the end, the unfortunate ends have been determined by society to justify the noble means. It is an individual choice whether to join in this structure. I applaud your friend for assessing that she would not be happy doing so, and supporting this gender-driven approach.

Related, devilishly difficult question: How might awards with a minority (gender or otherwise) requirement be made to reflect the same level of accomplishment, to individuals and the general population, as equivalent unrestricted awards?

Potentially, there is no answer.

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    I don't really understand the reference to football. In many sports (certainly not all), there is gender segregation to actually give women a chance to compete. In running, elite female runners are slower than elite male runners. The gap is essentially physiological with few exceptions. I don't think it makes sense to mention that here. Also, the original question is asking for studies...
    – user108403
    Nov 21, 2019 at 9:20

Do awards with gender identity requirements help or hurt the minorities they intend to support?

In general they seem to help an individual of "minority" status, while giving the stigma of all "minorities" in certain fields or with certain funding being due to that status rather than their work standing on their own. It also gives a lot of "minorities" imposter syndrome where they feel they may not have earned their way the way someone not offered many scholarships have. But that's on the individual, certainly many never experience this.

Does her individual refusal to participate hurt the minority community she is a part a part of

If your friend is exemplary, then why not be a success story. I personally disagree with restricting rewards based on any immutable characteristic but if I felt my exemplary work could shift opinion of my "group" in the positive then I would accept the award and attention it might bring in that field or space.

NOTE: Psychology is all generalities about behavior and there are lots of people outside of the norm on both sides of "minority" and "majority" so both these answers contain generalizations about how individuals and groups of individuals within certain groups might feel. There will be outliers.

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    Hi, your answer is a little vague... I've also updated the question to appease the overlords.
    – user108403
    Nov 12, 2019 at 9:12

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