Is it fair to use reference letters in a job search? Pros and cons

There’s a great post at Justice Everywhere by feminist philosopher Anca Gheaus on the pros and cons of using reference letters in a job search. Some of the pros: they give us a better idea about the kind of philosophical training the candidate received and allow search committees to usefully supplement the details they can glean from a candidate’s c.v. Some cons: reference letters can reproduce biases and hierarchies within the discipline.

Considering dozens, sometimes hundreds, of applications for one position is an onerous task, so it is appealing to take pedigree into consideration because this is an expedient method to decide whom to short-list or even whom to hire. […] But this is unfair to candidates: those who weren’t supervised by influential letter-writers, or who otherwise didn’t make their work sufficiently know to an influential letter-writer, have fewer chances on the job market. Moreover, relying on letters of reference can also be bad for quality, to the extent to which letters fail to closely track merit. This kind of problem will not entirely go away just by eliminating reference letters – the prestige of a candidate’s university will continue to matter – but [its] dimensions would be more modest.

For a change, it’s worth reading not only the original post, but also the comments, where a lively and thoughtful discussion on the matter is unfolding.

Why are there so few women in philosophy?

    The data on doctorates is telling. According to recent research the number of women receiving doctorates in philosophy is very near the bottom of the academic barrel.

    This blog has been looking at many facets of this problem. See our discussions of research here and here, for example. Or search our site for posts on implicit bias and stereotype threat.

    New research is opening up our understanding of another factor, which resides in the beliefs about one’s ability to succeed in a career:

    The decision to pursue a career rests in part on how we judge the following inequality:



    If we believe this inequality to be true, we might proceed; if we decide it’s false, we might look elsewhere. Importantly, however, neither side of this inequality is easy to evaluate. Abilities are nebulous, context-sensitive things that are notoriously problematic to pin down. As a result, we often look to others for clues, leaving the door open for substantial social and cultural influences on career choices. A symposium at the 2014 SPSP conference in Austin highlighted a number of recent findings that link sociocultural influences on people’s assessment of the inequality above to the presence of gender gaps.

    How do we get from sociocultural influences on this formula all the way to gender gaps? First, and most obviously, contemporary culture is rife with stereotypes about differences in men’s and women’s cognitive profiles; these stereotypes shape people’s beliefs about the quantity on the left-hand side (that is, the abilities they are likely to possess). Second, and less often discussed, practitioners of different careers may send different messages about the abilities that are required to reach the highest levels of achievement in their particular field; these messages shape people’s beliefs about the quantity on the right-hand side (that is, the abilities required for success). Putting these two elements together, we might make the following claim: One circumstance that gives rise to a gender gap in a career or discipline is when a gender group is stereotyped to lack an ability that the people in that discipline believe is essential for success.

    The post from which the quote above comes comes is full of interesting ideas and results. It’s a must read for anyone interested in the questions concerning access and opportunity.

    Here are some snippets:

    In some disciplines success may be seen as depending on sustained effort and dedication, whereas in others it may be seen as requiring a “gift” or brilliance that cannot be taught. Because women are stereotyped as being less likely than men to possess innate intellectual talent, they may find the academic fields that emphasize brilliance as the key to success to be unwelcoming. [note that the claim here is that the fields themselves may seem less welcoming. This seems different from the conclusions of Carol Dweck that we discuss in our Psychology of Philosophy section.]

    – Regardless of the purported cognitive differences men and women, or of the abilities purportedly required to become a physicist vs. a psychologist vs. an anthropologist, the mere presence of (1) different societal beliefs about the intellectual abilities of men and women, and (2) different societal beliefs about the intellectual abilities required for success in different fields will be sufficient to give rise to (or at least exacerbate) gender gaps.

    Stereotypes may have many different sources. To the extent that they contain messages about ability, this research says they may quite significantly affect career choices. Though the research is specifically about gender, we should keep it in mind as we think about issues such as the incredibly low representation of blacks in higher education in The Uk. Or the abled body whiteness of US philosophy.

    (Thanks to BL.)

Driving while pregnant?

From The Economist, “OVER the years, pregnant women have asked Donald Redelmeier, at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital, about the dangers of scuba diving, hot tubs, flying, mountaineering, cycling, bear attacks and all sorts of other exotic risks. But they never worry about road accidents. His new study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, suggests they should.Dr Redelmeier and his colleagues wanted to know if pregnancy makes a woman driver more likely to be involved in a car crash. So they examined data from the Ontario Health Insurance Plan, which records health visits for the Canadian province’s 13m residents. The researchers looked for women who, in the months before giving birth, visited a hospital emergency unit after a car accident in which they had been driving. They then looked at those women’s hospital visits in the three years before becoming pregnant and for one year following the birth.They found that being pregnant made the women 42% more likely to be in a serious car crash. The risk peaked in the fourth month of pregnancy. It seems that being pregnant is about as dangerous for drivers as having sleep apnoea, which causes people to snore and choke themselves awake throughout the night, leaving them tired during the day.”

Read the rest here.

I don’t know whether I’m more worried about the facts of this story or how those facts will be taken up in our society. As a friend nervously joked about a future in which pregnant women are banned from driving, women might have to take a breathalyzer test and pee on a strip.

Has anyone read any critical analysis of this story, either about the research itself or about the way it’s being framed? It certainly can’t help in countries in which women’s right to drive is controversial.