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I was browsing PhD position offers in Europe on different websites and I was quite surprised to find that several offers contained sentences such as

University of X value equality and diversity. We strongly encourage women and BAME applicants for this position.

where BAME stands for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicities; or

The research group aims to increase the number of women in scientific positions. Female candidates are therefore encouraged to apply.

Is it considered normal in the academic environment to discriminate between candidates according to their race and/or gender for "egalitarian" reasons?

How is the choice of a candidate based on their gender and/or race considered "egalitarian"?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Further comments are subject to deletion. – ff524 Aug 24 '17 at 20:55
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These statements, in many variations are quite common. But they are not discriminatory, as you suggest (universities do not "discriminate against white males"). All the statement is saying -- and that is true in actual practice in the discussions of hiring committees -- is that women and other minorities are specifically encouraged to apply. This does not imply that they get special treatment or preference. It is simply a reaction to the fact (statistically proven by research) that women rarely apply for jobs that they do not perceive as a "perfect fit" whereas men do. So if a committee has a bunch of applicants where none is a perfect fit, more often than not a man is hired because there simply are not enough women in the pool.

See: Why Women Don’t Apply for Jobs Unless They’re 100% Qualified.


I do want to also comment on one of your comments while we're here. You state

I think job offers should only focus on the candidate's skills regardless of his background and gender.

That is true, but how do you define "skills"? Let's use "qualification" instead. If you're, say, a typical math department where 50% of undergraduates are women, 35% of graduate students are women, but only 20% of tenure-track faculty are women, wouldn't part of the qualifications you are looking for in an applicant be that that person is a good mentor to many of the students in your department? Does it not diminish the quality of the department in its ability to teach and mentor if every single faculty was a white male? It is important to recognize that the role of the faculty extends beyond just writing papers in obscure journals; "qualification" is a term that ought to be understood much more broadly than you may think.

(I think it's important to say that the role of women in math departments is not to be there as mentors. All I want to say is that I want diversity to be part of the many considerations when deciding who is "best qualified" for a job.)

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Further comments are subject to deletion. – ff524 Aug 24 '17 at 20:55
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    The chat page has a fair number of comments that claim that males are discriminated against in academia. Here is a counterpoint with actual evidence: wired.com/story/… – Wolfgang Bangerth Aug 31 '17 at 21:58
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You have asked three very distinct questions (one in the title of the question and two in the body). I have done my best to answer them in the most factual and literal way possible.

Disclaimer: I am commenting about your questions regarding whether certain things are "normal". None of what I write below should be interpreted as an expression of opinion about whether such activities are moral or immoral, ethical or unethical, good or bad for society, etc.

  1. Is it considered normal to publish job offers inviting candidates to apply based on their gender and / or race in academia?

Yes, in the US this is fairly normal these days. For example, the University of California, one of the largest (if not the largest) public university systems in the US, has a policy document titled University of California Affirmative Action Guidelines for Recruitment and Retention of Faculty. In the section titled "Best Practices for Faculty Recruitment" (pages 4-5) one finds the statement:

[...] It also is consistent with University policy and obligations as a Federal contractor for advertisements to state that “all qualified applicants are encouraged to apply, including minorities and women.”

In my personal experience, such statements in job advertisements, at the University of California and elsewhere, are fairly common in the US these days.

See also this webpage for more details and context on related University of California policies.

  1. Is it considered normal in the academic environment to discriminate candidates according to their race and / or gender for "egalitarian" reasons?

No, discrimination of candidates based on race and gender is not considered normal. It is also illegal in the US as far as I know, so even to the extent that such discrimination is practiced (which I am not aware is the case), you are unlikely to find anyone who will openly admit to it being normal.

I should note that your question is formulated as a loaded question, making it difficult to answer in a straightforward manner. In the title you are asking about the practice of inserting a statement encouraging women and underrepresented minorities to apply in a job advertisement; the followup question in the body of the post asks about "discriminat[ing] candidates", creating the impression that the practice described in the title of the question is the discrimination you are referring to. However, as far as I know such statements in job advertisements are not legally considered to be "discrimination", despite your insinuation that that's what they are.

  1. How is the choice of a candidate based on his or her gender and / or race considered "egalitarian"?

Again, this is a loaded question based on the (almost entirely incorrect, as far as I know) premise that candidates are being selected based on their gender and/or race and that this practice is justified by the people making the selection on the grounds that it is "egalitarian". This premise is quite far from what is actually happening. At the very least, as I said, since the practice would be illegal, anyone engaging in it would not be as open about their behavior as your question seems to be suggesting; rather, in the scenario where actual discrimination was occurring, the discriminators would simply pretend that the less qualified female candidate they selected is more qualified than the male candidate they passed over even though she wasn't, and not be talking very much about egalitarianism. And that is even assuming that this sort of discrimination is actually taking place, which as I said I have no evidence is the case.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Aug 25 '17 at 13:50
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    As I mentioned in a separate comment, discrimination is in fact legal (and I believe not rare) in a number of European countries at least if the candidates are otherwise equally suitable for a role. – Lembik Aug 28 '17 at 14:38
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It is legal, possibly considered normal but ultimately plays against these "positively discriminated" groups.

The data point I can provide are two large international organizations which initiated diversity programs and advertised it heavily. A female close friend of mine who was brilliant got a job in one of them and was then routinely perceived as "having got in thanks to the diversity program".

It was truly heart breaking to see how many women (these were the '00 so the diversity programs were more targeted towards women) were now labelled as "it was easier for her to get there than for us". It was sometimes labelled as the new third promotion ladder (use to be managerial, technical and bed, now also "diversity").

My friend finally left the organization to join a small company.

I am a man in tech and see this way of thinking all the time. Maybe less now that our culture (western Europe) becomes less patriarchal but still. Stressing in job openings that women are preferred to men (as mentioned in another answer) is doing them a huge disfavour.

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    So basically she was harassed by her teammates and left. And we wonder why there aren't more women in IT. :( – RoboKaren Aug 28 '17 at 6:06
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    Rumors and gossip are harassment. – RoboKaren Aug 28 '17 at 6:51
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    It is [...] normal but ultimately plays against these "positively discriminated" groups. Yes, stories like these are one of the standard arguments against affirmative action. I'm not denying that this can happen, but in the name of fairness it should be pointed out that: 1. The job ad language being discussed here is not an example of "positive discrimination", so the "diversity programs" you are referring to are actually something different. 2. Even if diversity programs of various sorts had some negative effects, it doesn't mean that "ultimately" their overall effect is negative. ... – Dan Romik Aug 28 '17 at 8:41
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    ... A reasoned debate on the subject would acknowledge both positive and negative effects and try to reach a conclusion about whether the overall, net effect is positive or negative. It seems to me that one of the reasons affirmative action and various related diversity efforts are so controversial is that different people tend to focus on different effects - some see the negative effects as being predominant and others focus on the positives. The debate would move forward a lot if both sides would acknowledge that the other side's arguments have some merit. – Dan Romik Aug 28 '17 at 8:46
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    @DanRomik: I would argue that The research group aims to increase the number of women in scientific positions. Female candidates are therefore encouraged to apply. is not positive discrimination. If one wants to increase this number, special efforts will be made so that it happens (which I read, maybe incorrectly, as "we will make it easy for you to join"). As for point 2. -- I am part of a diversity program where I am trying to counter-balance the trend and I completely agree with the last line of your comment. – WoJ Aug 28 '17 at 8:47
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Adding a data point, this sort of language is also fairly common for positions in Australian academia and public service. As other commenters have noted, "Group X are encouraged to apply" is not the same thing as discriminating against non-X people who do apply.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Aug 27 '17 at 1:43
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I think you're making the mistake of reading job ads too literally. They are written with an eye toward legal requirements and under serious supervision from legal and HR departments. Thus they don't necessarily reflect the private thoughts of the people actually making the decision about the jobs in any particularly serious way. I mean, in many cases (including mine) they actually do, but even if a department were full of misogynists who had no interest in hiring women, their jobs ads would probably still have a sentence like this.

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    @LeonMeier I'm not even sure I understand what that's supposed to mean. Perception of what by whom? Societies don't perceive anything; individual people do. – Ben Webster Aug 26 '17 at 14:47
  • @LeonMeier Only a tiny proportion of the people in "society" read advertisements for positions in academic research groups - and they are probably not the best people to change anything (that's what politicians do, not academics!) – alephzero Aug 26 '17 at 17:38
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    EDIT: Sure, but, in the long run, such announcements change the perception of the academic community regarding which groups are discriminated. – Leon Meier Aug 26 '17 at 18:35
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    @LeonMeier I don't think that's really true, since as soon as they see such a search from the inside, they realize that the phrasing of a job ads is completely meaningless (except when it actually legally constrains what you can do). The interaction of gender with academic hiring is very complicated, but what matters is the opinions of the various stakeholders in the university, and the words in the job ad essentially have nothing to do with that. – Ben Webster Aug 26 '17 at 18:49
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    @BenWebster Sure, but many never get to see the process from inside. In particular, the search engines don't. People reading the job ads, by default (!), also don't. – Leon Meier Aug 26 '17 at 18:53
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The answer is - it depends :)

There are actually some countries were you are more likely to get the position (job, phd spot, etc...) if you are a man and less likely if you are a woman.

Despite this sounding like something you might expect from some undeveloped societies, the problem is actually in the big old western countries like France and Germany (see sources at the end). I've also heard this is a problem in the US despite them being loudest screamers in the diversity megaphone.

In such countries it is quite appropriate to give the disclaimer "we will not discriminate you because of gender or race" and the sentences you quoted are a bit cringy way to say it. Of course the aim of a research group should be the research not to increase diversity, it seems they just are trying to be polite a bit too much.

On the other hand, I live in a country were women has no such disadvantages getting PhD or scientific positions (see the sources if in doubt). And thus I find it inappropriate when someone hears from the West that this diversity thing is a huge problem and starts to scream "we need to give women more chances". In that way I am personally as annoyed as you are by these texts.

Sources: https://ec.europa.eu/research/swafs/pdf/pub_gender_equality/she_figures_2015-final.pdf See page 63 to see how bad (diversity-wise) is Germany and France (and how good Latvia is).

http://www.csb.gov.lv/sites/default/files/nr_13_sievietes_un_viriesi_latvija_2016_16_00_lv_en_0.pdf See page 18 that shows women having no problems getting the PhD positions here - 2.6% of relevant-age women enrol in PhD studies vs 1.6% of men.

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    "In such countries [like France and Germany] it is quite appropriate to give the disclaimer 'we will not discriminate you because of gender or race'" - at least in Germany, it is actually also legal to announce that female applicants will be preferred over male applicants if they are equally qualified, if that serves to ultimately compensate for the gender imbalance in the workplace (based on a law on affirmative action). – O. R. Mapper Aug 24 '17 at 22:15
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    @O.R.Mapper I feel like we should have such policies regarding people of near-retirement age... – Džuris Aug 24 '17 at 22:44
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    (1/2) 'In [France], it is quite appropriate to give the disclaimer "we will not discriminate you because of gender or race"'. Do you have an example of that? Since the first article of the French constitution asserts the equality of citizens regardless of their origin, race, or religion, job offers assume implicitly that they wouldn't discriminate candidates (though in practice, discrimination unfortunately do exist). The same article also claims that "The law promotes equal acces to women and men to [...] professional and social responsibilities", – Taladris Aug 25 '17 at 1:47
  • (2/2) so actions in favor of women employment would not be against the law and is not unseen. – Taladris Aug 25 '17 at 1:47
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    I disagree (in particular for Germany) with your statement that it would be more likely to get a job as a male. I know for a fact that some universities greatly prefer applications for PhD student positions by female applicants, even if the skills are significantly less. Also the situation is 'bad' in terms of proportion which does not imply less chances for a given female applicant. In my experience, and I'm an active researcher in CS, women are greatly appreciated and mostly always hired. The only problem there is, is that they often don't apply. In my opinion, this is the problem to address – Michael Hoff Aug 25 '17 at 11:13
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Sentences like these are usual in public service job offers. As most PhD openings follow the rules of public service, these sentences occur there, too. It is a formal "must write" that is there for political reasons.

It has nothing to do with discrimination as the application will usually be reviewed by research professionals who look for bright colleagues, not for their minority or gender status. It's still the scientific output that contributes to the reputation of their institution, not the skin colour or the genitals of staff members. In fact, the European Court of Justice has forbidden German laws from the 90s that said "equally qualified women will be preferred to men if women are underrepresented" (see here for further reading).

In fact, these sentences say nothing about the chances of success for any of such group. So while the political intention may have been to rise the statistical share of population group X among staff by summoning more applicants of group X --which is considered politically good--, the effect may be as well to rise the statistical chance of applicants from group X to be rejected --which may politically feel like discrimination again.

However, as you don't send a PhD application representative for your ethnic etc. group but for your own, you just don't have to bother about such sentences.

(There is only one exception: Sometimes it is announced that among equally qualified applicants the handicapped ones would be preferred. Then think about how many people are actually equally qualified for a specific PhD position ...)

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The practice of particularly encouraging candidates from under-represented groups to apply is common in physics. I have also seen jobs advertised that are available to only female applicants, see e.g., this opening in Australia. This practice, however, isn't that common internationally (and may require special exemptions/measures), and I haven't seen it applied to other minority groups.

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