I saw the following comment on twitter the other day and I can’t get this out of my head.

It reads:

A prestigious institution (from #1) told me that I was actually tied in the vote with their top candidate [a white male], but they’d only be making an offer to him because it’d be unfair to consider my race and gender in whether to make me an offer.

and the tweet in the thread that is referenced here reads:

1. When I asked why I didn’t get a faculty job at a prestigious institution, three different professors there told me they weren’t sure if I did my own research (sure, because my theorist advisors are so great with observations…).

I simply cannot get past this rather explicit comment than when a person of color or of female* presentation is viewed as being equal to a white man in academia, the decision has to be that the POC or female person must surely be passed over because otherwise it would be an “unfair consideration of race and/or gender”.

What?

WHAT?

This is a situation that apparently reflected a vote of individuals. But I want you to broaden this to any situation in which scientists’ respective accomplishments are being assessed, even within the head of a single person. I suspect this kind of situation is a lot more common than could be revealed by the explicit statement such as is the subject of the tweet thread.

First, the notion that one has to pick the majoritarian person to be “fair” in resolving a tie is in fact unfair. The only way to be strictly fair would be to toss a coin. The outcome for women or people of color in general would, of course, continue to be unfair if they are underrepresented in the pools of exact ties but as far as this head-to-head comparison goes, a coin flip or other random decision maker would be fair.

Second, it is pretty obvious given implicit and explicit biases against women and people of color that they only get up to so called “objective” equivalence by being one heck of a lot better than the majoritarian person. They have higher hurdles to surmount to get up to the level of being judged as good.

Or do they?

One of the reasons that this remains on my mind is that I am not infrequently made aware of related situations in scientific job searches. People have a tendency to make observations to me about how they are trying to make a difference in hiring in their departments and how that is being stymied by their colleagues. The issues of comparative judgment, being “fair” and “objective” about the talents of the majoritarian candidates, obliviousness or unjustified protestations of innocence vis a vis implicit bias….these issues are a common feature.

And lurking behind much of it is the sort of unjustified anti-affirmative action trope that holds that surely it is the women, and the people of color, that have had a sweet ride on Easy Street. It is the Others that have had all the benefits of doubt, un-earned legs-up, chances and opportunities, not the good old straight white man, you see. Academia is, according to this trope, entirely biased for POC and for women and has been for decades.

Thus if we have equal assessment it is somehow in reality the white man who is the poor struggler who deserves the special consideration.

To be fair.

I am sure there are many of you that do not have these types of experiences in your departmental job searches. I’m sure that many of you have seen successful and fair recruitments occur.

But we are still struggling to move the needle on many of the statistics when it comes to representation and diversity in academic scientific hiring. So on the balance, we are still looking for ways to improve.

Being aware of, and prepared to counter, these sorts of reverse-racism analyses may be helpful.

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*Yes I am well aware that women of color suffer a double whammy in these situations. And that there are LBGTQ issues. The oppression olympics are not, however, the topic of the day. The issue is majoritarian vs the Other that is perceived to have some sort of advantage when the decision goes to them following otherwise “equal” assessment.