Monday, December 18, 2006

How big a signal do you need? 

There's a debate raging in the economics profession over the decision of the profession's national organization's help-wanted publication to remove some language from ads that discriminate in favor of groups historically discriminated against. Inside Higher Ed reports:
When professors at the University of Vermont sent information about a job opening to the American Economic Association this fall about a tenure-track opening, they didn�t think their notice was unusual. After describing the position, the notice said that the university �welcomes applications from women and underrepresented ethnic, racial and cultural groups and from people with disabilities.�

Those words never made it into the economics group�s job notice list because they were deemed discriminatory by the association. That view has angered enough economists that the association�s board will be meeting next month to consider changing its policies on job listings, but for now economists are trading charges of discrimination, censorship and insensitivity.

I am a member of the AEA, as are most people in the field, and our university places ads in the JOE. The organizaiton's longtime secretary-treasurer, John Siegfried, says �We have taken the position that we do not want to help anyone discriminate in any way, shape or form,� and I agree with that. Our ads notify that we do not discriminate, and that we look for faculty able to "to teach and work with persons from culturally diverse backgrounds."

That apparently isn't good enough for some people, as Clark Patterson notes. Some people absolutely need a statement that they in particular are encouraged to apply. That is, they want some signal that the deck might be set in their favor. An EEOC lawyer calls this practice a "proactive measure".

It is common now for candidates I interview to have looked at our website and seen what our department looks like. I would view the "encouraged to apply" statement as inframarginal to a candidate really concerned about whether we are sufficiently committed to diversity. (Besides, we're ground zero.) It's a testable hypothesis: Someone should see whether more minority applicants are encouraged by particular statements about diversity commitment, ceteris paribus. It would make someone a nice masters thesis, if they had the data.

UPDATE: Turns out they did alter our ad. The sentence "...we invite individuals who contribute to such diversity to apply" used to have a list of the kinds of people who contribute to such diversity.