A modest proposal: Affirmative action or reverse discrimination for those who’ve broken their careers to care

I was talking to my wife today about an alternative form of reverse discrimination and came home to find something else I’d said about it linked to by Richard Green. To introduce the issue, here was my comment.

I’ve always thought that the absence of women in politics is in fact a symptom of a larger problem which is the way in which politics is skewed towards a particular personality type – of whatever gender.

And that’s really a variant of a larger phenomenon which one might call the Groucho phenomenon. (I’m thinking of his comment that he’d never join a club that would have him as a member.)

There are professions in which the people who want to do them, are disproportionately, by that fact, the wrong kind of people. I expect this is a relatively small sub-set of all professions, but it’s numerous enough. I can think of these.

* politicians (are they in it to really do a good job or do they just want to be the centre of attention)
* psychiatrists (are they flakey types who did psych because they wanted to work themselves out and never did?)
* ‘spiritual counsellors, like priests (are they generally committed to the spiritual or emotional journey or are they dullards who want to do something safe, secure and well thought of by their narrow community.)
* public servants (ditto, mutatis mutandis)
* police, jail-warders and security generally (is part of the attraction physically lording it over people?)
* judges (perhaps) (How pompous are they? How much do they want to see justice done?)

Note that the desire to do these jobs may contribute to someone doing a very good job, but often the desire is ‘tainted’ with bad qualities.

Whenever I see people raising the issue of discrimination, I always think of all those kinds of discrimination that we just don’t worry about, just pretty much let go through to the keeper, in favour of height, good looks or even just ‘introversion’. But as you forshadow, it’s not easy to come up with rules which treat these matters.

Which leads me to say that, while quotas may or not be worthwhile, their obvious problem is that they’ll end up turning up the very most narcissistic women! I think this is a genuine problem for instance in grooming women for corporate and other kinds of leadership. If one of the benefits one was hoping to get out of it is a different kind of personality type, you may not get very far, and women may begin demonstrating various tendencies one didn’t much like in men.

So I have a partial response to all this – and it’s odd that I’ve not thought of it before, but there you are. Presumably someone else has. But I’ve always thought that one of the main things driving the fact that women get so much less senior jobs than men (something that’s fading fast in many areas but much more slowly in others) is that they take large career breaks to look after their kids. So my proposal is for ABS to go out and measure what proportion of the community take ‘caring’ breaks from work of some appropriate period of years – say ten. Then one can start aiming one’s affirmative action and reverse discrimination policies towards trying to get the proportion of people in senior positions up towards that proportion.

(Walks off, dusts hands . . . . another problem solved.)

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Tel
Tel
10 years ago

Running your list of bullet points, it would be easier to just summarize it down to people who’s job gives them open-ended power over other people. In every case the “taint” is the attraction people intrinsically have for such power regardless of whether the job is done right or wrong.

Does this power-grab impulse affect males and females equally? My gut feeling is that it does, but from a Darwinian perspective males have more to gain (read “The Red Queen by Matt Ridley”) and males statistically tend to take more risks; so they are represented at both extremes, in prison and in power (I could give you a reading list but is would be outside the scope of this blog so search it if you are curious).

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

All you have to do now is think of some reasonable affirmative action policies that might actually work, which, at least to me, seems a lot harder for 40 year old women than 20 year old ones (indeed, not just women — the same would be true for other groups that you might like to help in some way or another).

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

Easy – reduce taxes to 25% flat rate with threshold, and then double this for every decade someone stays in the same ‘profession/industry’.

If that sounds ridiculous then maybe Conrad’s doubt is well-founded.

derrida derider
derrida derider
10 years ago

All true, though hardly original. Many have made the point that to put up with the rubbish (personal vitriol, no family life, crushing work hours, being nice to people you rightly loathe and stabbing in the back people you like, etc) necessary to become a senior politician then you have to be totally power-obsessed. And are therefore patently unfit to hold the office.

You shouldn’t elect to high office anyone who wants the job – we should fill them by conscription.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
10 years ago

My former VC boss, the late Alan Gilbert, told me that he resolved on a permanent career as an academic administrator when he tried to write another book and found that he no longer enjoyed it. I don’t think it is necessarily a poor reflection on anyone that they feel that they have hit diminishing returns in their field, and decide that they would be better off doing something else.

The alternative in universities is to hand more management across to career managers with no academic background. Then I think the whinging about the administration would be even worse…

Nicholas Gruen
10 years ago

Thanks Andrew, I agree and I expressed myself in a way that may have seemed carping. Your example kind of makes my point. It’s probably better, much better to have ex-academics administering the university than non-academics. But I hope you would agree that the way in which the VC is given higher status – much higher status – than the academics doing the research, is unfortunate – very unfortunate.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
10 years ago

Nick – Their salaries do seem excessive by public sector/ not-for-profit standards. Whether that is quite the same as ‘status’ I am not sure. One thing that strikes me is that the direct power of VCs is quite limited, and they rely heavily on their broader standing in the university to get things done.

Nicholas Gruen
10 years ago

Andrew, isn’t the appropriate benchmark academic standards, from which you and I agree it’s good if our academic managers come from?

I say ‘status’ and you say ‘broader standing’.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
10 years ago

I think being VC is a much tougher job than being an academic. The hours are extremely long. Despite their formal power, VCs have less discretion over their days than academics as there are seemingly endless formal duties and responsibilities. People are constantly bitching about VCs. A large premium on a normal professor’s salary is justified, but maybe not as much as they actually get.

On the other hand, I don’t have too much sympathy with the status anxieties and resentments than seem to consume universities far more than other institutions or spheres of life. Even the ego-filled world of politics is much better in this respect (perhaps because everyone realises that loss of status almost inevitably comes to everyone in politics).

Nicholas Gruen
10 years ago

I don’t see status anxieties in unis because I don’t hang round unis. I never noticed them from afar, but it doesn’t surprise me that they’re the way you describe. I certainly didn’t want to endorse anyone’s status anxieties. But I remember someone asking me in the 1970s, why don’t govt departments operate more like universities, where the top job – eg head of a department – is done reluctantly. That struck me as an interesting thought. But the kind of university world he was talking about went out if not with poked bonnets, then with sideburns and the Australian Cricket Team Mo.

Nicholas Gruen
10 years ago

I’d add that professors’ salaries are pretty terrible aren’t they – are there other people as skilled as professors who are as badly paid? Why shouldn’t a professor get the kind of salary progression that a senior public servant gets (depending on performance of course with similar proportions of people not getting to senior levels)?

Also, would the top 8 professors in the Group of 8 universities really be making a smaller contribution to the world than the VCs in those unis?

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

“Also, would the top 8 professors in the Group of 8 universities really be making a smaller contribution to the world than the VCs in those unis?”

The answer to that is easy: No. Looking around the blogosphere for people you and Troppo readers might have heard of, I would think John Quiggin is a good example — Is he more valuable to the world than our VCs? Most probably, and he’s not quite the top academic economist in Australia depending on how you want to measure it. Looking at the REPEC figures, there are 3 people above him, so if you think he’s more valuable than any VC, then there must be at least 4 economists, and that’s one field alone. Other obvious and less contentious examples people might have heard of would be those 2 Nobel prize winners in Perth. I’m sure many people around the world without stomach ulcers think they’re much more important than any VC!

I think the problem in Aus is that if you are really that good then you have three choices — put up with it, move to the US, or, if you work in an area where your skills are easily transferable, then work in a private a company. The latter of these is pretty much why engineering and a few other areas have pretty much had their day in Australian universities, and would have already if it wasn’t for China and Iran exporting large numbers of smart people. It’s also why Australia is still good at some areas like Astrophyics and philosophy — because these people can’t get other well paying jobs so easily, but they are valuable to universities in terms of research output.

Some of these things are starting to change incidentally (i.e., some of the top professors get paid more), but this creates it’s own internal bickering and jealousies, especially when it’s not from the government money. It’s also not the case that the very best guys even on the top money (such as the Australian Federation Fellowships) are earning anything near like what they could make when their skills could be transferred to private enterprise easily.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
10 years ago

The base salary for a full professor at U of M is about $150,000, but loadings are widespread and have been for a long time (more than starting to change, I think, as Conrad suggests). I don’t recall seeing any work on actual salaries.

On the other hand, I think Conrad is right that it’s probably less galling to have the CEO paid a heap than the US system were a few superstar academics are paid megabucks while masses of others are strung along with poorly paid part-time and temporary work. The most painful envy is local.

Unis are highly decentralised so perhaps CEOs make less of a difference than in the corporate sphere, but I think VCs do nevertheless have significant impact on their organisation.

In Victoria, the relative decline of La Trobe and the relative rise of Deakin says a lot of about the quality of their respective managements.

I had a look at the best private comparator to a VC, the CEO of Navitas, the biggest private provider. He earns a base salary of $600K, and received $1 million as bonus. So much more than any VC for a company with revenue of a medium sized uni.

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

“In Victoria, the relative decline of La Trobe and the relative rise of Deakin says a lot of about the quality of their respective managements.”

That’s a bit unfair on La Trobe — a big reason they declined (or more appropriately, didn’t expand), is because they’re not on a train line and they’re in a really poor catchment area for students. In addition, whilst it’s true that the reason Deakin did well was in part due to good management, it wasn’t exactly consequence free for everyone else — they basically moved a lot of their good stuff from Geelong to the Eastern suburbs, so yet more Eastern suburbs kids could go to university easily, whereas all the Geelong kids basically got forgotten, despite the population growth there. Perhaps La Trobe should move to the Eastern suburbs also, and I guess that would qualify as good management too.

Andrew Norton
10 years ago

Deakin Geelong picked up a medical school – plus the nice waterfront campus in the late 1990s. I don’t know about the other courses.