Sexual and Racial Discrimination in Academia

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I am probably rediscovering the wheel but I was deeply  shocked when for the first time in my life I saw such a questionnarie in an application form for a job in academia. I specify that the website from which I dowloaded this form comes from the University of Southampton, but apparently (from what I could hear from other people) is a quite a common thing in UK to ask so private information to improve “Equal Opportunity“.

I sincerly don’t know where to start, because it looks me so wrong… everything…     A the beginning I thought that my complete bewilderment was due to the fact that in Italy, France and Switzerland (the only countries in which I lived for a long period) asking such questions is ILLEGAL, and even if, just for statistical reason or to improve equal opportunity, an employer should ask your sexual orientation, your family planning, your racial belonging… would go directly to a tribunale.

Even assuming that I am not open-minded, I don’t get how a compulsory form (to which I could answer “Prefer not to say” and which will not be used for recruitment decision), should help equal opportunity. First of all, I suppose that any hiring process should be  based on scientific skills, and that’s all. Second, I see only two ways in which a statistic like this could be used, both wrong, admitting that this doesn’t really influence the hiring process. The first way is to say, “Hey, last year we didn’t reach the fixed female-quota and we miss some asians, so let’s take this chinese girl“.  So we would have a reversed form of racism, and the girl would be anyway a victim, because she would feel to be hired not for her scientific skills but just because belonging to a minority. The second way, perhaps more noble in the intention, but still wrong, could be to understand how society is evolving in terms of diversity. Anyway it’s still wrong to ask your ethic origin or your cultural background in a job application.

I found then completely no-sense to ask about “Sexual Orientation“, because it would be like to ask about your favourite colors. There is no relation between this and your future job! Discrimination is not an option, it’s illegal and immoral anyway. And then… for Heaven sake… University of Southampton… if someone doens’t know the difference between Heterosexual and Homosexual and needs some specifications in brackets… probably University is not his place. Moreover even if I write in a poor english, I am not sure that “Straight” is a fair word to indicate “Heterosexual“.

I am asking myself if I am exaggerating and if the intention of this form is after all good, but I still have difficulties to comprehend why should be important to declare if I am a “White British”, a “White Other”, a “Black Caribbian” or a “Mixed White and Asian”. Am I wrong? Please I would like to know also your opinion. Leave a comment!

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8 comments

  1. I always approached such things in two ways, the first being I’m happy to contribute data to the poor social scientist who needs so many data points in order to make a meaningful conclusion. But my larger approach has always been that ignoring issues of race and sexuality seems to cause more problems than it solves and while in a perfect would everyone would be judged on their skills and not who they love and their complexion. At the very least addressing that people do make decisions based on race/gender/sexuality at least makes people aware that their prejudices are not going unnoticed and just being aware of it helps to start to address the issues. These issue are a huge problem especially in the professional world. In my life (professional and personal) I try to address it by being out and open about my sexuality in order to normalize it, it’s easy to discriminate against a faceless homosexual and much harder when you actually know that really everyone is pretty much the same, albeit some are generally better dressed.

    1. Thank you very much MarkR! It’s really nice to have a different point of view.
      I am not sure that the awareness of being controlled will stop racist or homophobic to be what they are (a$$#o£€), but I am convinced that they will think that someone got a position just because part of a minority, and not for his skills.
      I understand a certain pragmatism in facing the problem in a not ideal world, however, categorizing people depending on their ethnic origin or sexual orientation it’s in essence a negation of the principle of equality.
      Sometimes I also wonder if different perception of the problem depends also on different cultural backgrounds, for example this statistics could look perfectly normal for a british but offensive for a latin. On the contrary, a scientist wearing a shirt with pin-ups in UK is accused of being sexist, whereas in france would be just weirdo.

  2. Good text! I completely agree that this is strange (at least from the point of view of a Swiss-white-heterosexual-male whose favorite colour is yellow and who likes spaghetti with seafood). I concede that it can be helpful to collect such data for a University researching equal opportunity. However, doing so in a job application is just wrong and there is at least an argument that there might be more behind it than just data collection. A, let’s say, annual survey among the existing worforce might be more appropriate. Because, as you point out very well, such information should never ever have anything to do with the application process (they possibly think that the application process is their best access to a very broad international group of people and they might even be right with that, but still…) I am stronly against such a thing. Simply ridiculous in my view.
    Two quick comments on the text:
    1.) I guess jail might be a bit of a harsh punishment for conducting such a survey, even in Switzerland (and possibly also Italy/France).
    2.) At least globally speaking, a chinese girl is hardly a minority, is it?

    1. That’s strange… everybody knows that normal people like green and spaghetti with bolognese sauce… 😀
      Regarding your comments, you are totally right:
      1) I exaggerated with jail, they would probably just receive a bill to pay
      2) True… chinese girls are not a minority, surely quite common like an italian which does ice-creams or coffe… or even better… espresso

  3. This doesn’t look like an application for a job science related. I agree, this kind of informations shouldn’t be ask in a job application mainly because I should be hired for my skills and not for my race, gender and whatsoever. In addition I don’t see how this can be related to equal opportunity and how can the knowledge of my sexuality, the color of my skin help them to improve the conditions of the working place. I would find more useful for creating a good group atmosphere to do a personality test to see if people can actually work in a group.
    Personally I think that asking for sexual orientation is itself a way to discriminate.
    And I agree with Joerg, maybe going to jail just for asking is a bit too much!

  4. I agree that the form you show is absurd and raises the reasonable question “who cares about sexual orientation of candidates and why is it relevant?”. However, there is at least one aspect that I disagree with and that refers to the “quota” aspect, in specific the much debated aspect of women quotas.

    Although it is noble that only “quality” should prevail when choosing employees, the sad fact is that women are discriminated against in the workforce in most societies. Some of this discrimination is due to social inertia, for example lack of suitable role models and lack of encouragement. Moreover, in my personal experience, many decision-makers/employers tend to chose candidates with “safe” backgrounds, typically those with a similar CV to their own, which causes an eternal vicious circle, i.e. “I was successful and therefore I should look for those that are like me if I want to find successful employees”…leading to more white men being selected for top jobs. One should be aware that such discrimination can occur at every stage of a career, which is probably why there are as many women as men at bachelor level but very few female professors.

    In my opinion, choosing candidates that fit “what is expected” and “what has worked before” reflects common prejudice, i.e. it assumes that someone different is more likely not to be successful! “Successful” then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: the candidate that is chosen is successful because they are chosen. In other words, “the best candidate for the job” is difficult to establish because competition is unfair due to selection bias.

    Women appear to drop-out of the system as their career advances: this phenomenon is almost certainly not because they are not “good enough” or “the best candidate for the job” but simply because they are discouraged and discriminated against at every stage.

    An interesting presentation (by a successful female scientist):

    http://www.snf.ch/SiteCollectionDocuments/news_141112_gender_bridging_gap_gasser.pdf

    In summary, I believe that there is a very good argument for women quotas. Data of candidates applying and being accepted or rejected are important for addressing potential biases. In the future, however, such “positive discrimination” may become unnecessary, when society has enough role models/decision makers/employers reflecting social diversity. Moreover, I trust that such future diversity will encourage new ways of working, thinking & achieving success, to the benefit and advancement of humankind.

    1. Thank you very much M!
      Your contribution is extremely valuable and interesting.
      We all agree that this specific hiring form is going too far.

      Regarding the problem of women discrimination in science, and in any other professional environment you are rising really good points. However, I disagree in considering the “quota” system as a solution, even as a partial solution. Because, as you pointed out really well, women are discouraged at each stage of their career. I personally heard a successfull female professor, denying the compatibility between academic career and family life, for a woman, and suggesting to her pupils to make a choice.

      I see the pragmatic point of view of the quota system but this will not change our mentality and attitudes. Narrow minded people will continue to think that the credits of a succesfull woman goes to the “quota” and not to their skills. We need to eradicate the prejudice and promote women career in science really early.
      Unfortunately we live in a society which constantly perform the objectification of the woman, where it’s normal to give as a present to a female child a Barbie rather than a microscope. Even recognized institutions fall out in the same stereotype, like in the case of this infamous video of European Commission:

      I greatly appreciate your optimism for the future, and I agree that all the obstacles that might encounter any human being in realizing themselves must be removed. Moreover, passion, values and ideas must be promoted.

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