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For reference, I am a woman of color in mathematics and I am applying for academic jobs.

I noticed that many of these applications say something like "Women (and other underrepresented groups) are encouraged to apply," or "We especially welcome applications from minority groups, women, persons with disabilities,..."

Yet there is also a non-discrimination clause saying " All qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, etc. ..."

Is preference actually given to these underrepresented groups? What impact does knowledge of the underrepresented group the applicant is a part of have in the reviewing process?

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    Very closely related: How is the equal opportunity principle enforced in academic recruitment? (I think the answer there addresses the apparent contradiction you raise in your question) – ff524 Dec 29 '14 at 11:41
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    I think (based on basically nothing) that these statements are themselves examples of affirmative action, rather than suggesting positive discrimination will take place. If you think people might be put off from applying simply because they have a certain characteristic, you can see these statements as an attempt to counterbalance that effect. I have no idea how well that reflects reality. – Jessica B Dec 29 '14 at 12:02
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    I agree with Jessica B. You seem to be interpreting the encouragement to apply as indicating that preference may be given. Instead, it means no more than it says (namely, that the department wishes it got more applications from women and underrepresented minorities and wants to make sure such applicants know that they have a strict policy of non-discrimination). – Anonymous Mathematician Dec 29 '14 at 14:54
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    In my experience with hiring committees, underrepresented status comes up after the first cut has been made. Folks tend not to go out of there way to find the files for underrepresented candidates. But, once the "long" short list of serviceable candidates has been made (in the correct research field, strong letters from the "right" people, etc.), underrepresented status has been raised to pursue certain candidates. The motivation is not entirely altruistic. Things are said like "The dean will really like this." – user2379888 Feb 20 '15 at 12:47
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    Sometimes the dean may like it enough to give an extra hiring slot. Administrations often have money earmarked for recruitment of qualified candidates from underrepresented groups. – Noah Snyder Dec 24 '15 at 4:08
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While I am in a corporate position, our process has some similarity, and I also discuss these issues frequently with colleagues in more traditional academia.

What I have observed is that at the level of faculty or other primary investigator hiring, direct comparison of candidates is almost always impossible: it is always apples vs. oranges because every candidate is qualitatively different in what they bring to offer the department. Thus there is no opportunity for a simple positive discrimination like "given two equally qualified candidates, pick the underprivileged one."

Instead, any strong candidate will have an advocating faction whose interests they would support, and opposition from another faction whose interests would be better supported by a different candidate. These pragmatic interests are likely to dominate over diversity considerations in the final decision in many cases.

Where diversity considerations are more likely to factor into the process is earlier on, when candidates for interview are being selected. Here, demographic information can be used so that a group can notice, "Hey, we're only planning to invite white males... maybe we are being biased in our evaluation and should look deeper into the candidate pool." It probably still isn't enough to make up for the implicit negatives, however.

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    (+1, for both answers) Where diversity considerations are more likely to factor into the process is earlier on, when candidates for interview are being selected. — Supposedly, when institutions collect "affirmative action" data from applicants early on in the process, they do not use the data in the screening process. One such email I received from a school states: "This information is for statistical and official affirmative action purposes and will not be used to determine eligibility for the position. Failure to comply will in no way disqualify you from consideration for employment." 1/2 – Mad Jack Dec 29 '14 at 14:07
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    I suppose figuring out an applicant's gender based on their name is likely successful a majority of the time. However, other diversity considerations may not be as straightforward to obtain if in fact the institutions do not use the collected diversity data during screening. 2/2 – Mad Jack Dec 29 '14 at 14:13
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    @MadJack At a faculty hire level, many candidates have a professional website with information that makes many of these questions moot... – jakebeal Dec 29 '14 at 14:45
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I think this depends on the policies at the individual institutions.

For instance, here in Germany, I believe that institutions are required to ensure that their search committees have, where possible, female faculty members on the committee, as well as representatives from the human resources department to ensure that qualified female candidates are not excluded on flimsy grounds. I have also heard of searches where the faculty especially recruited female candidates to apply. (The recruiters are not the same faculty as on the search committee, reducing conflict of interest issues.)

However, in the US, I think the issue is more to ensure that candidates of all backgrounds apply (through job fairs at conferences, targeted advertising, and so on), and ensuring that all candidates are treated equally during search committee deliberations, rather than biasing the choice toward members of underrepresented groups.

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