Admirable Goal, Unfortunate Side-Effect – What to Think?

A reader contacted us recently to ask for help in thinking through a quandary: what to think, how to feel about an institutional policy that has good goals/intentions, but happens, because of other factors (social, economic, etc), to be gender-imbalanced in practice. I think it’s a good thing to think about, because I think it actually comes up a lot in academia (and outside)– evening seminars that are followed by dinners are great for departmental cohesion and free exchange of ideas, for example, but surely the women in the department are going to be at least slightly less able to participate. Another example comes from the reader I mentioned:

The College is located in a region where homes are very expensive, and thus most faculty are unable to afford to buy houses.  The College wants faculty to live close to campus so as to be better able to participate in the life of the College (and let’s just assume this is a worthwhile goal, which I think it is).  But the College is also located a significant commute away from any urban centers where non-academic jobs are likely to be,  and so anyone with a partner who has a non-academic job will find it difficult to live near campus.  As a matter of fact, a much higher percentage of the women faculty are in this situation than the men faculty. The College is now exploring a housing policy that will help faculty achieve home ownership by providing them a significant financial benefit when
they buy houses, but only if they buy within a tight radius to the College.  Many of the women faculty, who are in “split commute” situations, live well outside this radius in areas where housing in equally if not more expensive.  (Expanding the radius slightly, even doubling it, won’t really make a difference.)  So this significant financial benefit will end up being non gender-neutral.

So, what do we think? What ought we think? And more to the point, I suppose: What ought we do?

15 thoughts on “Admirable Goal, Unfortunate Side-Effect – What to Think?

  1. i just noticed the time stamp on my post: 5.19am. so, here’s an idea: breakfast seminars. they can start, oh, 1/2 hour after primary school starts, whenever that is in your region. ;-)

  2. I’m no ethicist but let me give it a shot.

    The problem is that the policy, while not intended to benefit men more than women in fact does because of current social arrangements: men are more likely to have spouses that don’t work and so don’t need to commute than men.

    This is a comparable case: suppose the College sets up a subsidized nursery and child care center for the convenience of all faculty who don’t have spouses staying at home to care for the kids. De facto this program will benefit women far more than men.

    My intuition is that both the housing subsidy and the child care are ok, and in fact desirable.

  3. I’m not a lawyer, but it’s my understanding that the US Supreme Court has constructed a couple of tests for how and when gender- or other- bias becomes a problem. If some law has to pass the test of “strict scrutiny” it needs to a) advance a compelling governmental interest b) be narrowly tailored c) be the least restrictive means for achieving that interest. (Thanks Wikipedia!)

    In this case, since we have reason to expect the policy to have a a disparate impact on women, we need to ask whether there are other means to promote the goal and whether the goal is really worth enduring the side effect of negatively affecting female faculty members.

  4. Actually, I want to make two comments, but here’s the first: it sounds like a case for gender budgeting. From :

    “…Gender Responsive Budgets are tools and processes designed to facilitate a
    gender analysis in the formulation of government budgets and the
    allocation of resources. Gender budgets are not separate budgets for
    women, or for men. They are attempts to break down or
    disaggregate the government’s mainstream budget according to its
    impacts on women and men. The way in which national budgets
    are usually formulated ignores the different, socially determined roles,
    responsibilities and capabilities of men and women. Budgets formed
    from a gender-neutral perspective ignore the different impacts on men
    and women because their roles, responsibilities and capacities in any
    society are never the same. These differences are generally structured
    in a way that leaves women at a disadvantage in society by creating
    inequality gaps. Therefore they are an important tool for analysing the
    gap between expressed commitments by governments and the decision-making processes involved in how governments raise and spend money. Gender responsive budgets can contribute to narrowing such gaps…”

    So if the institution were to do some gender responsive budgeting, it might
    (a) engage in the process Carl suggests, looking at the full range of options for promoting the relevant outcome and considering whether other means would have fewer side effects
    (b) pick up something from H.E. Baber’s comment and consider parallel investment in fabulous on-campus childcare!

  5. The other thing I wanted to say was about how this would be addressed in the UK. (Or should be, in a university with moderately competent administration.) I think it’s interesting, because it’s an area where I’m impressed by what the law currently requires.

    The Equality Act 2006 created a Gender Equality Duty on public bodies – including universities – to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity between men and women (see e.g. )

    First, this means that when they carry out any of their functions (employment; research; teaching students; procuring goods and services; that is, everything they do) they have to ask themselves: how relevant is this activity to gender equality? How much impact will it have on equality of opportunity between men and women? And the more relevant it is to gender equality, the more ‘regard’ they must have to their duty.

    It’s not an absolute duty – promoting gender equality doesn’t trump other goals – but the requirement is to take gender equality into account in proportion to the relevance of the function or activity.

    Second, this means that public bodies have to keep a record of how they take gender equality into account: what evidence they use; how they find out what men and women think about the proposal or the area of work; if necessary, how they amend the proposal to mitigate any adverse impact on men or women; and on what basis they make their final decision. This is called an Equality Impact Assessment, and it’s supposed to be published. It’s how institutions show that they are carrying out the basic duty to have due regard.

    Now, I think this is a good system, mostly because it requires transparency about the decision-making process, and about the evidence used in that process. On the other hand, it risks being made bureaucratic by university administrations which like to add extra pieces of paper to processes instead of just getting people to THINK. But I’d be really interested to know what the reader with the original quandary thinks. Would a process like this lead to an open debate on your campus?

  6. Hi, Thanks to extendedlp for picking up on my question, and thanks to the others who chimed in for your thoughts and suggestions. Because this is likely to be such a fantastic benefit for faculty at my institution in general, I’m hesitant to make waves about it, but at a meeting last week when I inquired whether anyone had done any research on whether this policy would be likely to impact men and women differently, I did not think my question was taken seriously. And, unfortunately, my institution has a reputation (deservedly so, I think) for not being a female-friendly place to work.

    As for the concrete suggestions people posed, I do like the idea of suggesting other benefits (like subsidized childcare) as a counterpoint to this policy, and I think that might be a useful way for me to press my concerns further with the higher ups. As for Heg’s suggestion, although I like the idea in principle, I don’t think it would be likely to lead to much good at my institution, unfortunately.

    If people have further thoughts, I’d love to hear them. And thanks in general to all who participate in this Blog, where I feel like I learn so much everyday.

  7. In Norway and other Nordic countries (can some reader help me with more specifics?) there is now a requirement that any new state development (not sure of the scope exactly. for all I know it may not be limited to state developments; help anyone?) go through a study of the actual impact of the proposed development on different sections of the population, in particular the breakdown in terms of the sexes. This get called “gender mainstreaming” (in translation). The idea is precisely that some practice or action or some such might not be sexist inherently, nor in intention, but in effect (given the actual social structure and arrangement, –there is no need to make the argument any stronger).

  8. 1) For all these policies about avoiding actions that have disparate effects on different populations: Is there consideration for the fact that one population may be disadvantaged, and a view that helping that population (necessarily at the expense of others) may be okay?

    2) While this policy seems more helpful to men working at the college than women working at the college, it’s not obviously more helpful to men overall than women overall, since the men and women in this argument have partners who are, respectively, women and men.

    So what are the potential problems? Either (a) we’re considering the population of employees at the college (and not their partners) when we decide whether this is sex-discrimination. And maybe there’s a legitimate reason for this? Or (b) maybe we say that this is incentivizing a system where only one partner works, and that’s better for men, or bad in some way, or something.

    I also want to note that partners who live together but work in different places have some amount of commute to divide between themselves anyway. It’s not clear to me how much less better of a couple in that situation is after accepting the incentive than a couple with only one person working.

    If the financial incentive were enough to get everyone living near the college (even those couples with one partner working somewhere else), then maybe we can say the policy even helped women more than men! Because couples with only one person working were already likely to live as close to the college as they could afford. But now the professors with working partners (more women than men) win the who-has-to-commute argument, and get to live much closer to the college than they would have!

    Uh oh, I feel like I got kinda rambly there. Just some thoughts.

  9. balk, i’m really glad this is of help to you. and thanks everyone for contributing (and please keep it coming). i think this is a very useful info to have in our archive, as well.

  10. The idea is to woo faculty and faculty families into a tighter radius of the college. The disparity here seems to be not between men & women so much as between single-income households (whether because of a stay-at-home partner or because of singleness) and double-income households.

    Rather than looking at it/presenting it as a gender-equity issue, would it be possible to bring it to the committee’s attention from a standpoint of effectiveness? As the policy is written, it is unlikely to have the desired behavior outcome in two-commute families.

    Is there a way to tweak the proposal so it will be more likely to be effective at wooing those double-income families into town? Paying one bonus for in-town home ownership and another tied to distance of partner commute? (The latter sounds perverse from an environmental standpoint… but is perhaps really not, since the faculty member drives less of those miles.)

  11. ‘As the policy is written, it is unlikely to have the desired behavior outcome in two-commute families.’

    I don’t see why. Lots of couples live in a place where one has to commute and the other didn’t. (If there’s a nearby city, maybe they used to live there, and the non-academic partner had little to no commute.) This is an incentive to give the commute to the other partner, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t work.

  12. Regardless of whether or not it’s an issue of gender equity overall with respect to financial benefit (when one takes into consideration significant others), I think this is still a gender equity issue because the purpose of the policy is to promote fuller participation in the life of the college.

    If the policy works out where more male faculty will take advatange of it, then (presuming the policy has the intended effect) more men than women will have the consequent fuller presence on campus. A better social connection to the workplace generally leads to professional benefits- so it seems like those who take the incentive (mostly men) would benefit professionally.

    I would also think this might influence students according to gender based on perceptions of faculty involvement by gender…

  13. Just a few quick thoughts on some of the comments above.

    First, I agree that the fundamental inequity of the policy is between single-earner households and dual-earner households. But, at least among the faculty at my campus, the percentage of women in dual-earner households is very high, and much much higher than the percentage of men in dual-earner households.

    This relates to another point I wanted to make. I specifically didn’t use the words sex discrimination when I was describing the policy, because I thought that would be a loaded way to put it. We might agree that the policy does not discriminate against women, but still think that it has unwelcome effects with respect to gender equality.

    Anyhow, I welcome all of this discussion, and so thanks again for the continuing comments.

  14. @Kathryn: Yes, that makes sense. The college should not promote men’s involvement more that women’s.

    I guess the part that’s still unclear is why this policy wouldn’t have two-income families moving closer to campus also. As I wondered above, maybe it would have even more of an effect like this on two-income families, if it’s true that overall (a) one-income families are already living as close to campus as they can afford, and (b) that’s a lot closer than two-income families are presently (since they might be splitting the distance to some far-away job, or living very near the far-away job).

    If those two-income families are now incentivized to live near campus instead of the other person’s job, or in the middle, then it could make a bigger different for them than the one-income families, who already lived as close to campus as they could afford.

Comments are closed.