The Drawbacks of the Deficit Model

Following on from my recent post, and my remarks about not being a shrinking violet, let me take up the theme of the ‘deficit model’ discussed in a recent post by my erstwhile colleague and WiSETI project officer Esther Haines on her own blog.  The deficit model and the interventions used to overcome the resulting problems were described by Carol Muller as follows:

“… interventions have been characterized as efforts that focus on a “deficit” model, in which it is assumed that these individuals lack something—ability, experience, interest, inspiration, motivation—that they need in order to succeed. In this model, attention is paid to mitigating that deficit, typically by providing programs—summer camps, internships, remedial courses, special study groups, mentoring programs, social opportunities, seminars, evening programs, etc.”

This has the danger of making women feel they are the problem, rather than the problem lying in the culture that expects everyone to be the same i.e. in this case, male.  By being told I am ‘not a shrinking violet’ I hear the statement both that I ought or am expected to be one, and that I stand out, for the wrong reasons, by not being one.  To my mind that is a trivial example of the deficit model: if I were male I would be ‘forceful’ and that would be OK.

Positive actions to overcome the perceived deficit can indeed be constructive: workshops to build up confidence may be helpful and WiSETI runs some locally, as do many groups.  (Although positive action itself can have a negative side to it, and can be perceived as getting dangerously close to positive discrimination.  As last week’s THE pointed out, there is something of a backlash against any such actions ongoing from white males).  But the organization itself needs to change structurally, from the top, so that differences between the genders – or race, or whatever it might be – do not per se form a criterion on which judgments are made. This is what mainstreaming is all about, and again locally we are pursuing this path.

Let me give a small, but significant example. In the university’s promotion forms we have traditionally had a place for people to give details of what were known as special circumstances. Typically, this was to permit people to say they had taken time out for childbirth/maternity leave, though it also made it possible for other circumstances such as long term sickness to be declared. The University is changing the wording this year to additional circumstances. So, you no longer need to feel you are somehow different and need special treatment simply because you’ve had a baby, or a career break, and it will probably also help men to feel more comfortable declaring their own caring responsibilities. These are events that happen on top of one’s work, but they don’t need to imply you will be singled out for careful scrutiny because you are ‘special’.  The new wording should make such declarations feel less threatening.  We will see.

I have been horrified to hear, from women within my university, that in the past they have been explicitly advised by line managers including heads of department that they should simply not fill in the box at all, not admit to having had a baby/time out. I find this astonishing and unhelpful as a straightforward explanation of why there may be a hiatus in publishing seems to me to be much more constructive than a visible but unexplained hiatus which will be interpreted as someone having an ‘off’ period in their research.  As ever, actions that help everyone are likely to help women proportionately more, but by widening what is admissible I hope that parenting more generally will be seen as normal and work-life balance considerations will no longer be off the radar. But then, maybe I’m an optimist.

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One Response to The Drawbacks of the Deficit Model

  1. Melinda says:

    Athene, this is brilliant! Why don’t you put the link to this blog in your email signature? I had trouble reading it at first because print v small on mobile site and eyesight not so good, but found a magnifying glass! What I like is that you have space and freedom to explain the arguments fully and also can provide a commentary on things like the motivation behind meetings, which is otherwise never recorded. Especially useful for women, as we need to hear about how others did things, what inspired them, etc to feel comfortable with oir own efforts. Could also put the link up on things like acknowledgement slides in talks. From my own experience, once a few people start reading it, word soon gets round