In her Nov. 4 column in The Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente denounced the decision of Universities Canada, a national university lobbying group, to release the demographic data for each university faculty in a national database.
Her argument is that universities have come to prioritize inclusivity over performance; hiring staff, for instance, has supposedly become a competition to select the most marginalized candidate, rather than the one most genuinely qualified for the position. Furthermore, she argues that the current imbalances in certain fields—“the shortage of female math professors, [or] the scarcity of Indigenous medical students,” as she puts it—are not necessarily attributable to differences in opportunity, but differences in preferences within these groups.
Here’s what Wente does not understand: Publishing demographic data about the diversity among faculty and staff is, at worst, harmless. At best, however, this data allows universities to expose and correct existing biases in hiring committees that routinely select white applicants over applicants from visible minorities, even when both applicants are equally qualified.
More generally, affirmative action policies are not about lowering standards for people from disadvantaged groups. They are about making sure that qualified applicants are not being looked over, merely because they are from a particular minority group.
A plethora of evidence suggests that hiring discrimination persists in high-paying, white-collar jobs. Sonia Kang, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga, published a study last year in which 1,600 fake resumes were sent to private sector employers. The study compared the number of interview requests for resumes with markers of visible minority applicants—African or Asian-sounding names, and extracurricular organizations with racial cues—to “whitened” versions of the same resumes.
The results of the study were bleak, although unsurprising. Resumes with whitened African names yielded a 25.5 per cent response rate, whereas only 10 per cent of unaltered names received a response. For Asians names, 21 per cent of resumes received a response after “whitening” the names, whereas only 11.5 per cent received a response with the unaltered name. Furthermore, in a separate study, the researchers found that a third of Asian and African respondents “whitened” their names on resumes, and at least two-thirds of respondents knew someone else who did.
This study illustrates that, even when applicants are equally talented, it remains harder for visible minority candidates to obtain employment. Part of the shortage of diversity in university faculties today is not due to a shortage in qualified minority applicants, but that these applicants are being arbitrarily passed over. Acknowledging that discrimination exists—which can only be proven through the release of demographic data—is the first step toward improving equitable hiring practices.
It’s easy for Wente and others to discredit programs like affirmative action, by saying that they reward unaccomplished minorities and punish qualified (white) applicants. But, studies like Kang’s demonstrate that discrimination still exists in hiring practices.
It’s important to correct these implicit biases for obvious moral reasons, but also for pragmatic ones. Having a more diverse faculty, staff, and student population simply expands the pool of qualified individuals at an institution, and helps to increase performance within these institutions.
According to the Canadian University Survey Consortium, 40 per cent of first-year students in Canadian universities are visible minorities. Although this represents one of the highest rates in the world, the faculty at most universities is still predominantly white and male. Part of the reason why some undergraduate students from underprivileged backgrounds don’t pursue faculty positions is “because they don’t see themselves reflected” in the faculty, as Enakshi Dua, an associate professor at the York University School of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, explained in a Globe feature on diversity in post-secondary spheres.
If enough people are passing the opportunity away because they lack mentors from their own community, then a huge pool of talent is lost. By releasing demographic data about their faculties, universities can acknowledge—and hopefully, over time, correct—the lack of diversity within faculties. This would inspire undergraduates to pursue such positions in the future.
Whether or not one agrees with affirmative action policies when selecting faculty and staff, releasing demographic data is a small, harmless step toward understanding markers of discrimination, and keeping universities accountable for their hiring practices.