Friday, June 7, 2013

Affirmative Action: Sexism and Appearances Versus Reality

I recently finished Medical School and was talking with a classmate (I'll call him Bart) about where people would end up and careers they would have. Our conversation touched on the topic of medical graduates who were unable to secure a training residency and what the future held for them. Finally we pivoted to our most distinguished colleagues: members of Alpha Omega Alpha honor society (or AOA).

Most medical schools in the US have a chapter of AOA at their school. It is a very prestigious honor to be a member of AOA as it denotes that you were in the top tier of grades as well as being reputable members of the community. Bart was explaining to me that new members were elected each year and that active members were a part of the selection process. This meant that classmates that were selected in the first two years of medical school to be a member of AOA were a part of the committee to determine who would be allowed to join in the third and fourth years.

Bart was invited to join AOA after his second year of medical school so he was one of the leaders of the selection committee. They made it through one cycle of candidates and it turned out that every single person they admitted to AOA was a women. During the next round of admitting people a woman in the crowd spoke up and asked "should we be thinking about getting more guys in?"
Bart answered "No, we're not doing that. I'm not playing that game. We're going to go with the best people." A couple of the women in the room (also on the selection committee) let out a couple of 'you go Bart'.

As it turned out a clear majority of women from my medical school class earned the AOA honors. This is even more pronounced when women make up only 40% of the student body (they make up roughly 40% of the applicant pool to medical school as well). In earning a greater proportional share of AOA honors the women in my medical school class collectively out performed the men in my class (at the top anyway). The women in my medical school class played by the same rules and kicked our butts.

Why the question to include more men?

This would be an entirely reasonable question if the selection committee was looking at recruiting people from the general public. When looking to fill a management position from the general public and all of the applicants are of a certain ethnicity or gender it is reasonable to ask if there isn't an inherent bias in your process of recruitment. This is why binders full of women is good policy as it ensures that qualified women are considered for employment positions.

But there was no recruitment of applicants to a job for AOA. There was a field from which the committee was obligated to choose from so there can be no possibility of recruitment bias by the AOA committee.

The reason the question was asked is that we have become a society so obsessed with appearances that we are willing to embrace sexism so that there isn't the appearance of sexism. That sounds crazy because it is, but that is the implication of the question 'should we try to include more men?'. The question reflects a fear that the group looked biased (by selecting mostly women) even though it wasn't biased in favor of women but had instead selected a group of high achievers in medical school based on objective information. 

This has become the new normal. We act sexist and racist to avoid the appearance of racism or sexism. We lower the standards in education for one group so that they are not underrepresented by having two separate and fundamentally unequal sets of admissions. Oddly enough men are more likely to to benefit from affirmative action in university admissions now because women have starting out performing men.

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