A Swiss university is walking a shaky line of legality by advertising an assistant professor position only to women. According to Inside Higher Ed, the dean of the school said this “aggressive” approach is necessary because women currently comprise only 11 percent of the faculty.
Efforts to increase the representation of women in higher education are admirable. But advertising positions specifically for women is risky, in that it may open the door to legal battles which ultimately undermine the efforts of the university.
Andrea Binger, head of the legal division of the Swiss Federal Office for Gender Equality, said a position can be legally advertised only to women in “exceptional circumstances,” one of which could be reaching a goal of true gender equality. This justification, however, is vague, and even if a university claims it is trying to achieve this goal with its job listing, men could still bring legal action against the university for sex discrimination.
Whether or not the university would be victorious in that case is difficult to say. But the university can still make an effort to increase the representation of women in its faculty without opening itself to legal issues. The university could reach out to and encourage more women to apply for the position in order to get a bigger and more diversified applicant pool. If an equal number of men and women apply for the job, there are certain to be women in the applicant pool who are equally or more qualified than the male applicants. And if considering applications of equal caliber, the university can consider their efforts to diversify faculty when making a final decision.
Many universities consider identity in student admissions. We have written in favor of affirmative action in college admissions, but no college could reserve a specific number of openings in their class for minority students only. The same goes for hiring university faculty.
There are certain circumstances under which gender could be a qualification for a position. For example, if a school wants to hire a counselor specifically for women who have been sexually assaulted, a woman would be a better choice for that job. But when hiring a professor, there must be an open playing field, as gender does not influence one’s capability of fulfilling the duties of that position.
That said, the diversity of faculty does influence the quality of students’ education, so universities can justifiably take gender into account when they choose a candidate. More female professors may bring a different perspective to their departments, and may encourage young female students to go into professions they otherwise would not enter if they did not have any female role models.
Universities can tip the scales slightly in favor of female applicants for the sake of those goals. But shutting the door to men completely is not the right approach. It mimics the discriminatory practices of institutions that for so long refused to hire women simply because they did not think they were qualified. And though this may not be the university’s intention, there are other ways to accomplish the goal which retain the values of equal opportunity.