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Addressing discrimination and the law of unintended consequences


Very interesting article in today’s New York Times about the backlash that can result from  an institution’s efforts to address gender discrimination.

It seems that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology acknowledged 12 years ago that it had discriminated against female professors in “subtle but pervasive” ways,  and its subsequent efforts to address that discrimination became a national model for addressing gender inequity.

A new evaluation of those efforts shows both substantial progress and unintended consequences. For instance, many female professors say that M.I.T.’s aggressive push to hire more women has created the sense that they are given an unfair advantage. They report an assumption when they win important prizes or positions, it is because of their gender.  Female undergraduates face the perception that they got into M.I.T. only because of affirmative action.  Women also say they are uneasy with the frequent invitations to appear on campus panels to discuss their work-life balance. In interviews for the study, they expressed frustration that parenthood remained a women’s issue, rather than a family one.

Stereotypes also remain: women must navigate a narrow “acceptable personality range,” as one female professor said, that is “neither too aggressive nor too soft.” Said another woman: “I am not patient and understanding. I’m busy and ambitious.”  Letters of recommendation for tenure reflect this bias; those for men tend to focus on intellect, while those for women dwell on temperament.

These issues obviously extend beyond academia to corporations and law firms making honest efforts to address gender and racial discrimination.  Now we just have to figure out how to change the perceptions and avoid the backlash!

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