Last year I received an email sent to a newsgroup advertising a lectureship, with the stipulation that only women should apply. My reaction was curious – initially I was slightly offended, as this was clear discrimination (yes, yes I am writing this as a white male). But the reasons for making such a stipulation were also clear: to improve the representation of women in academia, reducing the current disparity which is a result of past discrimination. I hope it’s clear that creating a position that only one sex can apply for is (viewed in isolation) is unethical. But the reason for doing this is to redress imbalances in gender equality, and allowing these imbalances to persist is surely not ethical either. A little ethical quandary: do the ends justify the means?
I was reminded of this dilemma by DrugMonkey’s recent blog post. He is upset that people are suggesting that spousal hirings – a university wanting to hire a good professor finding a faculty job for their spouse too – are unethical. I’m astonished by this, and DrugMonkey’s arguments do nothing to dispel this. My surprise is not that DrugMinkey thinks spousal hiring is a good idea, but that he can’t see the ethical problems.
If one is hiring a new faculty member, one tries to hire the best person for the job. But the spouse who get the job doesn’t do so because of their own qualities, but because of who they are married to. I find it difficult to see how this is ethical: it is nothing more than “jobs for the boys” (or girls).
DrugMonkey’s defence of spousal hiring is that it is a good thing for the university, because it helps to secure the long-term commitment of the person the university wants to hire. I would certainly agree that this is a valid reason for spousal hiring, but it’s valid for pragmatic reasons – the university gets who they want, at the ‘cost’ of hiring someone else, who may not be optimal. Pragmatic, yes, but unless one is a follower of Aleister Crowley, I think one would have a hard time arguing that this has an ethical basis. One might be able to create a sufficiently utopian society that hiring someone because of who they are married to doesn’t harm anyone else. But in our society, the money to hire someone has to be taken from somewhere, and that imposes a cost: someone loses out because the money is used to support nepotism.
Perhaps my underlying point is, to use Ben Goldacre’s catch-phrase, “I think you’ll find it’s more complicated than that”. In both cases, it is clear to me that both women-only job adverts and spousal hiring can be seen as unethical. But that might not mean they are the wrong thing to do. For women-only jobs, there are ethical arguments both ways, so that one could argue that it is either a good or a bad idea, depending on how it was implemented, and the social context.
For spousal hiring, I think there is no strong ethical case for it, but then again it is not the worst breach of ethics, and there are good practical reasons for it: it is a compromise between ethical and practical considerations.
There are many occasions where there is no black or white, it’s all grey (as I think Wilkins would agree). I think it’s more interesting to acknowledge them and explore why we come to the decisions we do. Ultimately I’m not sure where I stand on spausal hiring, because I can see both sides. On all-women positions, I think they are a one reasonable approach to the problem (I’m equivocating a bit because there can be better ways of achieving the same end). But I can see how a slightly different moral standpoint can lead to the opposite conclusion.
Shorter summary: damned blogosphere! It tries to turn everything into black and white.
The Beast thinks he should get a blog too