Canadian Psychology, 1997, 38, 238-243


Doreen Kimura

This was a special issue of Canadian Psychology devoted to the discussion of political correctness in psychology.  There were 3 ‘pro’ papers by K. Dobson, A Favreau, and C. Stark; and 3 ‘con’ papers by J. Furedy, D. Kimura, and H. Klatt.  Each author also wrote a short commentary after reading others’ papers. 


Preferential hiring policies are often based on the erroneous assumption that if a designated group is not represented in an occupation or profession in the same proportion as it is represented in the population, then negative discrimination has taken place.  In the school of discrimination-logic, no alternative explanations are considered.  Not only is it asserted that the white male majority keeps women out by deliberate exclusion, but also by creating a climate in which women are uncomfortable.  This explanation is emphasized particularly for the smaller numbers of women in science and engineering.

Although there may have been a bias in favour of males in the past, a look at the evidence suggests that, currently, women in Canada are being hired in academic institutions at rates higher than would be expected from the number of qualified applicants.  Moreover, their persisting low representation in some fields may be a matter largely of self-selection, reflecting different talents, different emphasis on the importance of family, and different occupational preferences from men.

Hiring women over better-qualified men will inevitably lead to the downgrading of women in academia, to a reduced respect for the professoriate, to poorer education for students, and to a deterioration of collegial relations between men and women.

A colleague of mine (not in the Psychology Department) had a discussion recently with two graduate students about the advisability of hiring more women in their department.  His comment was along the lines “I have no objection to hiring competent women, but I do not think we should hire someone on the basis of possessing a vagina”.  This reductio ad absurdum pungently encapsulates the objection many of us have to preferential hiring policies, because it points out the absurdity of the extraneous criteria.  How can one justify academic decisions based on the possession of one or another set of genitalia? or on skin colour?  Lest some readers feel that such a comment denigrates women, in that it reduces them to sexual beings, I should point out that those sectors of society that most avidly promote the preferential hiring of women are generally also those who erroneously deny any native differences between men and women other than just such obvious physical differences.

Affirmative action policies are just one aspect of the complex generally referred to as “political correctness”, and which has been defined by several of the other authors of this special issue.  Psychology as a discipline probably more often suffers from the excesses of political correctness than it perpetrates them.  Anyone who studies the variation in behaviour associated with sex, race, and even age, will probably have encountered, at the very least, disapproval.  The bulk of such negative reactions do not come from fellow psychologists.  We may have avoided some of the difficulties of other Social Science disciplines, such as Political Science and Sociology.  For example, Sociology’s current status has been described by a noted sociologist as “a set of ideologies…instead of...a study of ideology” (Horowitz, 1993).  I would speculate that the extent to which Psychology has escaped is in part related to the fact that in recent years it has become more and more a biological science, in practice and not just in name.  To that extent it has broadened its consideration of the root causes of behaviour and has avoided the narrow socialization (politically correct) point of view.

But lest we congratulate ourselves prematurely, a list of special sections of the American Psychological Association and the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) should give us pause.  It includes not only discipline specialties such as “Developmental”, and “Experimental” but also sections which have no discipline connotation and which have a dubious place in academic associations.  These include “Women and Psychology” and “Ethnic Minority Issues”, etc.

Moreover, just over three years ago, a series of events related to the CBC showing of a set of videotapes called “Brain Sex”, and involving some of the individuals contributing to this issue, indicate that complacency about the status of Psychology as a science rather than an ideology, would be misplaced.  That documentary took a strong position that much of the behavioural difference between men and women was determined by biological factors operating early in life rather than by differential socialization.  The videos suffered from some oversimplification, as do most media presentations of scientific explanations, but on the whole they presented a point of view which is accepted by most respected workers in the field of sex differences, as indicated by interviews with some of these researchers.

Feminists of course automatically criticized this position, though rarely on an academic basis.  Most of the criticisms took the form either of simple denial of the facts, or a statement that sex differences should not be studied.  Even more problematic were the attempts to both censure and censor the videotape.  The Committee on the Status of Women of CPA, and the Section on Women and Psychology of CPA, requested that the CPA Committee on Scientific Affairs make a public statement about this documentary (Pettifor, 1993).  Given these two bodies’ ideological stance, such a statement would obviously have been negative.  Worse, a member of these sections wrote the CBC and asked them to withdraw the videotape from further circulation (Favreau, 1998).

I therefore wrote to the then-president of CPA and stated that I hoped CPA would not engage in any censure such as recommended by the Status of Women, but that if it did, I would publicly go on record as repudiating their position.  To his credit the president replied that “rather than suppress divergent ideas CPA should, if anything, encourage the open discussion and legitimate debate on these points of view” (Dobson, 1993).  As far as I know, no statement on the documentary was ever issued by the CPA Committee on Scientific Affairs.  I have no information on what the CBCs response was.

One more example from my personal experience, which should make us cautious—some years ago I proposed to make part of the general curriculum in our department a course on the psychobiology of human sex differences.  The course had already been taught as a special course, with success.  The outline made it very clear that this course would emphasize heavily the empirical evidence, i.e., it was not to be a course in the politics of sex.  Yet strong objections were made from one woman faculty member at that time in our department, and from feminist elements in the rest of the Faculty of Social Science.  The arguments seemed to be that such a course would “do harm” to women, though how simple facts about sexual differentiation could harm anyone was never made clear.  Fortunately, reason prevailed, the course was approved, and it has been a steady offering ever since.

Let me return to the question of affirmative action, one variant of which is employment equity.  I am not personally acquainted with anyone who will state that it is acceptable for a person to be barred from a position on the basis of irrelevant criteria such as sex or race.  There may be some who feel that way, but most academics I know assert very strongly that this would be wrong, and furthermore, would be incompatible with the aim of promoting excellence.  It may also be true that some women are currently prevented from accessing university positions solely because of their sex.  I would not deny that, but I also know of no objective data in support of that contention, and such data should not be difficult to amass.  [Paradoxically, some of the very people who are most concerned with discrimination on the basis of sex find it quite acceptable to discriminate against men, by showing preferences for women.]

The accusation of discrimination, either deliberate or “systemic” is often the first and only explanation considered for an unequal distribution of university faculty positions between men and women.  Some universities have consequently almost abandoned the merit principle in favour of identity politics.  For example, the majority of advertisements for academic positions in the CAUT Bulletin and University Affairs use wording like “especially invite applications from...  women”, rather than the more neutral wording “invite applications from all qualified persons”.  Under such principles of group identity, criteria for hiring, promotion and tenure operate under certain assumptions which are not always explicitly stated.  One common assumption is that there are no absolute standards; hence that one point of view is as valid as any other.  By this view, what has existed in the form of scholarship in universities in the past has been merely the self-serving philosophy of the white Euro-centric male.

Another key assumption is that if the proportion of the members of a particular group in any occupation or profession does not match the proportion in the population, then discrimination has taken place.  No other evidence of negative discrimination is required.  We hear this claimed repeatedly, yet note how illogical and inconsistent this is, in that discrimination is not claimed for hiring in nursing, or in secretarial work.

Restricting our discussion first to university faculty, what are the actual facts?  A paper on the Canadian situation by Lee (1993) indicates that the proportion of women, while still a minority, is increasing.  Between 1960 and 1989, the percentage of women overall increased from 11% to 20%.  Percentages of women were, however, much higher in Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences and Education than in fields like Physical Sciences and Engineering.  This appears to be a universal pattern throughout the world, though the percentage varies greatly from country to country (Benditt, 1994).

In 1989, only 52% of women teaching at universities in Canada had doctoral degrees, while 71% of men had such degrees.  This may in part explain why women are under-represented at Full Professor ranks, since over 80% of both men and women who were full professors had doctoral degrees.  Another explanation offered by Lee is that it has been only recently that substantial numbers of women have joined university faculties, and progression to full professor takes many years.  Moreover, women academics show lower productivity, as measured by number of publications, than men (Cole, 1987; Long, 1993).

Feminist groups frequently claim that women are discriminated against in the hiring process, and that an “old-boy” network commonly keeps women out.  The data do not support this contention.  In fact, in Canada women are being hired in higher proportions than would be expected from their numbers in the applicant pool of recent doctoral degrees (Brown, 1993; Irvine, 1996).  For example, in the mid-eighties women were calculated to constitute 25.6% of the applicants at the Assistant Professor level, but received 33.4% of the jobs (Irvine, 1996).  The discrepancy in favour of women was present in every discipline grouping except the Mathematical and Physical Sciences, where the numbers were almost equal, 15% and 14.1%, respectively.

A recurring theme with discrimination-oriented apologists is the fact that women are especially poorly represented in the natural sciences.  Commenting on data collected by the National Science Foundation on women in research in the United States (“Biennial Ph.D. survey”, 1991), Brush (1991), for example, simply assumes that there must be covert discrimination of some kind operating.  An initial puzzle for him was that the number of women in Biology and Medicine research, in contrast to other Natural Science disciplines, was at least as high as in the Social Sciences.  Where women are in the extreme minority is in the Physical Sciences—chemistry, computer science, and especially physics and engineering.

Brush’s explanation you must already have guessed—physics and engineering are the coldest sciences, i.e., they have the “chilliest climate” for women.  In support of this contention, he referred to studies which show that girls are less likely to take physics in High School and they are more likely to say they really dislike the subject when they drop it!  And, whereas half of High School teachers are women, only about ¼ of physics teachers are; and moreover, many women physics teachers according to Brush complain that they don’t understand physics and don’t like it!  This is the kind of evidence he produces to show that physics and engineering are areas where women are discouraged by societal influences such as male dominance.  The most obvious inference, that women may not on average be as talented in these subjects, or may simply have strong natural competing interests, are not even considered.

This theme has been taken up by women apologists in this country as well.  A report on Canadian women in engineering, science and technology (“Report of”, 1992), paradoxically implies that one reason girls have less interest in science is because they have a female teacher!  “...The child’s first teacher will be a female.  Unfortunately most elementary school teachers have little background in science and in many cases are afraid to teach it” (p. 4).  “Elementary teachers (who are predominantly female) frequently demonstrate a phobia or bias against science-related activities” (page 5).  How does one derive from such statements that men are somehow responsible?   By exercising discrimination-logic, apparently.  The fact that boys are taught by the same elementary school teachers as girls is ignored.

Just the opposite claim is made by another feminist writer, who suggests that girls’ problems in math would disappear if, among other things, “there were many more women teaching math and science to our youngsters” (Fausto-Sterling, p. 59).  In a similar vein, the negative role earlier claimed for the female elementary school teacher (“Report of”, 1992) seems to contradict the later proposal from the same report that “At universities, an environment hostile to women…needs to be eliminated.  More women professors would assist greatly” (p. 10).  If such women professors are in fact less capable than men, presumably they would fail to solve the problem.  The totally unsubstantiated claim is made that at university “the sciences are...allowed to flourish…in as hostile a setting as possible for many female students” (p. 4).  The illogicality, self-contradiction, and disregard for evidence in these arguments is embarrassing.

Another common complaint against the Natural Sciences is that they discriminate against other visible minorities, particularly blacks and Hispanics.  Data again from the NSF survey in the US show that blacks and Hispanics are uniformly low in frequency in all sciences, including Social Sciences, but they are especially rare in the Physical Sciences.  In Physics and Engineering they each form less than 1% of the working scientists, clearly lower than their representation in the population, which for blacks is 10-15%.

Brush in his article did not attempt to discuss the race differences.  If he had, he would have had to deal with the astonishing fact that Asians, who formed less than 3% of the US population at the time of the survey, formed almost 20% of the working doctoral force in Engineering.  How does one interpret this in the framework of a chilly climate towards minorities in the Physical Sciences?   This white male bastion is actually riddled with visible minorities.  Similarly, Physics and Math show almost a 10% representation of Asians.  In Physics, there were twice as many Asians as women, and in Engineering, about six times as many.

The answer in discrimination-logic would have to be that the physical sciences specifically discriminate against women and blacks, but favour Asians.  While this is not impossible, it is very unlikely.  There is, however, a much more probable basis for the distribution of men and women, Asians and non-Asians, in the physical sciences.  This is the group-differences in performance on tests of mathematical reasoning and spatial ability.

It is well established that men outperform women, on average, on the Math component of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT),1 but there are generally no differences between the sexes on the Verbal section (e.g., Wainer & Steinberg, 1992).  This translates into many more men than women at the high end of the SAT Math range.  Also, Asians outperform non-Asians, on average, on standardized math reasoning tests (Campbell, 1991; Steen, 1987).  To the extent that Math is an important prerequisite for success in Physics and Engineering (Dawson, 1993), it follows that the proportion of women will be low, and the proportion of Asians high, relative to their representation in the population.  In other words, the distribution may represent a difference in the profile of talents across ethnic and sex groups.

Ability differences are probably not the only factor.  One added factor for which there is evidence, is a difference of interests.  Many girls, after all, perform very well on math reasoning, but even those who do apparently have strong competing interests in other areas, according to Benbow and co-workers (Lubinski & Benbow, 1992).  Thus the math-gifted girls in their study were nevertheless more interested in literature and foreign languages than were boys, and their job orientation was directed more at working with people than with inanimate objects, unlike the math-gifted boys.  So that of the females who clearly could successfully pursue a career in a math-oriented field, few chose to do so.

Benbow has presented evidence against socialization factors as a major contributor, and has speculated that there are strong biological influences contributing to the sex difference in math ability (Benbow & Lubinski, 1993).  Our own research has shown a non-linear relation between an individual’s level of testosterone, a masculinizing sex hormone, and both math ability and spatial ability (Gouchie & Kimura, 1991).  So there is some basis for believing that a significant component of the abilities which distinguish successful scientists, show natural biological variation across groups.

Feminists first countered such data by denying them (e.g., Hacker, 1983; Linn & Hyde, 1989), but the evidence against that claim is overwhelming.  They then suggest that the findings are irrelevant.  One of the same authors who insists there is no significant difference between the sexes on math (Hacker), also suggests that it is used as a device to keep women out of fields like engineering!

The neo-feminist position appears to be that certain areas of scholarship, science among them, are somehow “gendered” by society and hence that they are inimical to entry by women.  The “gendering of science” refers to the supposed male networking for position and advancement, the sense of competitiveness, and the single-minded dedication of its practitioners (Mather, 1996).  Emphasis on objectivity has even been invoked as a male characteristic inimical to female inclusion (Keller, 1983).  Other than the networking for position as an exclusionary mechanism (which is not supported by the data presented earlier), most of us would consider competitiveness, dedication and objectivity as positive qualities.  If by dedication we mean “...focused intense interest patterns...,” these appear to be associated with high levels of professional achievement (Chipman, 1988), surely a positive goal.  If by objectivity we mean evidence must be available to others, this is a sine qua non of science.

To return to the position posed in the title, some readers may feel that to encourage the disproportionate appointment of women may not be all-bad.  After all, there is no doubt that there was overt discrimination in some fields in the past, and somehow two wrongs may make a right.  Consider, however, the effect of continuing such policies.  Let us assume that in a particular hypothetical field, 2/3 of the PhD graduates are men and 1/3 are women, and let us make the further provisional assumption that these two groups are equally qualified, that is, that there is the same percentage of “excellent” candidates and of “average” candidates in each group.  On average one would then expect that the hiring ratio would be two men to one woman.  What is happening instead is that women are being hired in proportions higher than one-third.  This must mean that some women are being hired over better-qualified men.

Moreover, if one reads advertisements for academic positions in Canadian university circulars, phrases like “So-and-so University especially invites applications from women, etc.” are common, and they send a strong message to men not to apply.  Some even stipulate that unless one embraces a feminist philosophy, the application will not be considered.  Imagine the outcry if a similarly biased “advertisement” were worded to favour men.  We cannot continue to hire women at the expense of better-qualified men without degrading women to second-class citizenship in the academic community.  Young women currently being appointed to university positions are already suspect as a consequence of preferential hiring.  Add to this the debasing of the professoriate, and of the education delivered to students by faculty hired because they were members of a designated group, and we have the ingredients for a very negative outcome.

Most people will feel that the overriding question should be, not, do affirmative action policies benefit a particular sub-group, but do they benefit society?   I suggest that they benefit neither society as a whole, nor, in the long run, any group which is unfairly favoured by such policies.  In the short run, of course, particular individuals may be advantaged by being members of a designated group in that they acquire academic positions and financial rewards, which they might otherwise never have obtained.  This is nothing more than immoral opportunism, but it may be too much to ask of human beings that they reject such advantages for themselves.  But if such gains are made at the expense of the institution’s respect for, and collegiality with, women (students or faculty), the advantages of belonging to a designated group will have been too dearly bought.  If we want our daughters to have a respected share in future academic resources, we must rigorously enforce the merit principle in academic decisions.

Footnote:  1Whereas males outperform females on math reasoning tests, females are on average better at calculation tests.  These differences on aptitude tests appear even in public school, where the same person teaches both sexes and both types of math, and before differential course-taking.


Cet article soutient que Ia liberté d’enseignement n’est pas absolue.  Les politiques d’embauche préférentielle sont souvent basées sur le postulat erroné a savoir que si un groupe désigné n’est pas representé dans un emploi ou une profession dans Ia même proportion qu’il est représenté dans la population, il s’agit de discrimination négative.  Dans cette logique de Ia discrimination, aucune autre explication n’est examinée.  Non seulement l’on considère que la majorite des hommes blancs excluent délibérément les femmes, mais ils créent un climat dans lequel les femmes se sentent mal a l’aise.  Cette explication s’applique particulièrement aux quelques femmes qui se retrouvent en sciences ou en genie.

Bien que par Ie passé il y ait eu un préjugé favorable envers les hommes, il faut se rendre a l’évidence, qu’aujourd’hui, dans les institutions universitaires canadiennes, le taux d’embauche des femmes est plus élevé que ne le laisserait supposer Ie nombre de candidates qualifiées.  De plus, leur faible representation constante dans certains domaines peut très bien être une question de libre choix, reflétant différents talents, une différente importance accordée a Ia famille et différentes préférences professionnelles entre les hommes et les femmes.

L’embauche de femmes au dépend d’hommes plus qualifiés mènera inévitablement au déclassement des femmes dans le milieu universitaire, à une baisse de respect pour le professorat, à une diminution de la qualité de l’enseignement et a Ia détérioration des relations entre collègues hommes et femmes.


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