Category Archives: feminism

Diversity statements

Well… it’s been a break. I will not try to explain it. This is a personal blog, I do not get paid for it, and I’m free to post as often or as rarely as I wish. I did plan other posts to restart it: one about math, another expanding on a workshop presentation I did a couple of months ago. But, diversity statements. So here we go.

I want to be very clear that I’m not down with the various comparisons that get made on similar occasions, including the McCarthy era, Stalinism, gulags, reeducation camps, cultural revolution, and so on. Institutions have the right to ask job candidates for statements on how they are going to perform various aspects of that job. Take, for instance, teaching statements at universities. If I personally believed that teaching quality should have no relevance to hiring at research universities, and if I said so in my teaching statement, and if that led to the outcome that one might expect, would I be punished for my beliefs? Or would I fail to meet a basic suitability criterion for the job for which I’m applying?

I do not actually believe that teaching quality is irrelevant, but here’s an example where I do disagree with common institutional practices. Every time someone here gets promoted or tenured, they have a “teaching report” prepared for them. That report includes a long and detailed analysis of their teaching evaluation scores, with statistics, comparisons to multiyear departmental averages, and detailed comments on minuscule variations in individual numbers. There is a large body of research showing that teaching evaluation scores are biased and that their correlation with teaching effectiveness is at best questionable. Arguments against their use in tenure and promotion cases have been made and have been successful at some institutions. And yet, we keep writing those reports, often against our better judgement. That’s not ideology. That’s how capitalism works.

At the same time, it is true that diversity initiatives can misfire. They can hurt the same people they are meant to support, and produce effects opposite to those intended. This can happen when those in charge of the initiative have good intentions but do not have the experience, expertise, or authority to carry it out properly. It can happen when the different actors and authorities involved, often different parts of the same institution, are at cross-purposes with each other. It can also happen when, as is common in academia, diversity is sublimated into hierarchy. Too many academics are happy to have a circle of young women gazing at them in adoration and would be delighted to promote more women into that position, but change their tune when the same women become more senior and start competing against them for resources.

And also at the same time, such failures are immediately weaponized by those who think that diversity, equity and exclusion are dirty words, that women should stay in their place and that place is not in tech or academia, that ability is determined by genetics and genetics is determined by skin colour, and so on. And from a different angle, it is very easy to say that diversity actions must always fail as shown by the preponderance of evidence, that academic selection should be based on merit as it has always been, and that any external intervention to promote diversity must end in disaster. This happens in the same departments where external intervention is the only realistic chance of improvement for those marginalized. The preponderance of evidence that merit-based selection does not always work as advertised is rarely taken into account.

My own problem with the ideas of diversity, equity and inclusion is that they do not go far enough. They are missing a fourth component: justice. That would be a very different conversation, one that should include but not be limited to past affirmative action measures for white people as well as the actual historical facts of, say, lynching and witch hunts. I do not think that academia, by and large, is anywhere close to ready for that conversation.

I do not have a simple yes or no answer as to whether diversity statements should be required. I do not believe that being “for” or “against” diversity statements, with no qualifiers, is a useful way to have that discussion. It is completely possible to support diversity initiatives in general principle and also raise objections when such initiatives are not well executed. The specifics will depend on the institution, the people involved, the political and financial landscape in which they operate, and much more. With that said, if you would like to know what I think, here are a few things for your consideration.

Be clear about what you expect. Do you just want a statement about how the candidate is going to implement inclusive practices in their teaching? Or do you want a more general statement on diversity-related activism? If you want activism, and if you actually get an application from a Black Lives Matter march organizer, or from an Indigenous person who got arrested and convicted for protesting pipelines and now has a criminal record, what are you going to do? You should think about that before you put out the call.

Be aware of the balance of power. Do you want a statement on how the candidate has experienced racism, sexism, or other kinds of discrimination? Do you understand that writing up such experiences can be a traumatic process, better suited for therapy than for a job application? Do you believe that you have the right to ask disadvantaged people to bare their bruises for your evaluation? And do you honestly expect that doing so will get them the job? If, say, a Black woman writes up a long list of complaints related to sexism and racism at her previous institutions, this may impress the equity office, but what about the mathematics department? It’s the mathematics department that would have to shortlist her, and it’s very easy for them to not do so, and they really do not think that they have a sexism or racism problem, and they do not feel that someone who complains all the time would be a good fit for their collegial culture.

And what if that candidate did not just nurse their complaints quietly? What if they acted on it? Colin Kaepernick continues to be unemployed. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is in hiding. Actresses get blacklisted. The careers of women in academia who report sexual harassment are often derailed. Meanwhile, the straight white guy who regularly volunteers for diversity leadership positions will have a nice, safe diversity statement. Is that the intended outcome?

Be realistic. I have talked to undergraduate students who had to write diversity statements for their graduate school application. It’s a very awkward conversation to have. They are undergraduates. They have not done much in life. Those students who are more aware of social justice issues are likely those who have experienced them firsthand, so see above, with the added consideration that graduate students are right at the bottom of the academic pecking ladder.

Have you thought about who has the time and resources to volunteer and participate in resume-building activism, and who has to work two part-time jobs after school just to make ends meet? And that those part-time jobs might be at places like fast food chains where you are very much not expected to show leadership? And that organizing diversity initiatives at such outlets can get you fired?

We are not in Lake Wobegon. I did look up the Berkeley diversity rubric. It does indeed give low rating to candidates who describe “only activities that are already the expectation of Berkeley faculty (mentoring, treating all students the same regardless of background, etc).” This is a problem, but it’s not an ideological one. It is the same problem that we always have in academia where all faculty are expected to exceed expectations, everyone has to be above average, and at least 30% of us have to be in the top 1%.

The tradition of exceeding expectations in academia is intimately tied to the traditional reality of professors being men who had wives. Exceeding the expectations for one person is quite possible in those traditional circumstances.

A graduate student recently shared with me her experience of the “thank you for typing” acknowledgments found in the classics of our field. What they tell her very clearly is that many, if not most, of the scholars who produced “the canons” and attained tenure and status in our field did so by profiting from the labor of another person who was devoted full-time to the maintenance of the scholar’s life, career, and family. This raised a question for the aspiring historian: Would she be expected to produce the same quantity and quality of work, but without any of those patriarchal benefits?

And now we are starting to apply the same standards to diversity and equity work. I’m imagining the perfect Berkeley job candidate: a groundbreaking researcher, outstanding teacher, and a public diversity advocate and activist, with a stay-at-home wife (a former Mathematics undergraduate) who types his papers, books his travel, and prepares the materials for his equity and diversity workshops. Is that where we are going?

How about just doing the job that we were hired to do? In diversity and equity in particular, we do not need everyone to try to be a leader. The actual point of diversity and equity is that those traditionally assumed to be leaders in academia need to learn to shut up, let others talk, take the back seat, follow directions, do the work without constantly angling for leadership positions, I do not feel that the Berkeley diversity rubric is supportive of that goal. I feel that it promotes the same kind of power-seeking behaviour that has always been a problem in academia.

Should a major educational institution work to be more inclusive? Absolutely. Should it try to have equity and diversity leaders among its faculty? Of course. It might even try a targeted search or two, seeking specifically candidates who have a good understanding of diversity issues and experience in working on them. But we need to stop pretending that everyone can or should be a leader in everything.

Good intentions are not enough. When I was starting my first postdoc job, the then-chair of the department gave me a pep talk on how I should really pay attention to my teaching because that was going to be very important for my career. A few months later, I was placed in front of my first large calculus class: 210 students, many of whom were repeating that class, which I did not know. I did not know what background I could expect from those students, or how to manage grade disputes, or how to teach large classes, or how to teach in general. It did not go well. Looking back on it, I could have done worse. I could have just explained to my students that calculus was very important, waited a little bit, and then administered the final exam.

Some time between then and the end of my second job, universities started asking for teaching statements. It took longer, though, before they heard what everyone else was saying: that university teachers were never taught how to teach, and that merely asking a person to describe their good intentions was not going to help. Now, many institutions have measures in place: graduate courses on how to teach, teaching workshops for new instructors, and so on. These are often both mandatory and counted as part of the job. They work best when they acknowledge the reality that there are other demands on our time, that while some of us want to be educational leaders, others have different priorities but still want to do the job well enough.

There could well be a use for similar training with respect to diversity and inclusion. Not just the usual 20-minute online courses on how to avoid a sexual harassment lawsuit. Not open-ended discussions on race and gender and ideology and everything else in general, either. Just basic instructions on what is not appropriate to say in the classroom or to your female colleague, how to respond when a student asks for accessibility accommodations, or how to provide such accommodations without expanding your own workload beyond acceptable limits. Or, for that matter, how to organize diversity events, for those so inclined.

Going back to the Berkeley rubrics, I would have a serious problem with a candidate who scores low on knowledge and understanding but very high on the level of diversity-related activity. Even if someone scores high on knowledge, but that knowledge is mostly based on reading and not on life experience, I would still have questions. In mathematics, if you get it wrong, you can just erase the board and start again, In equity, you can do real harm. Instead of addressing racist views, you may end up giving some the opportunity to air such views unchallenged. Instead of making universities more equitable for women, you may confine them to lesser roles or create more male panels to lecture them on their behaviour.

The institution has to step up. A common failing of diversity initiatives is that people from the targeted demographics get hired (or admitted, or invited), then left to their own devices in a less than supportive environment. You want to hire more faculty from underrepresented groups. Great. When was the last time you talked to your current female faculty? To your minoritized faculty? Have you asked them what they think about your diversity plans? That female professor in math or physics or whatever who mostly does not talk to anyone? Are you even aware that she exists? Did you talk to those who left? Do you know why they did, or where they went?

You want your new hires to be active in supporting diversity, equity and inclusion. Are you going to give them the resources to do it? Are you going to give them the authority? Can they say that they speak for the institution when they tell instructors in a training session how not to be sexist? Or must their work come with the disclaimer that the views presented here do not necessarily represent anyone else’s and that the workshop facilitators are just stating their own opinions?

What are you going to do if their department disrespects them? What are you going to do if they become the target of a right-wing hate campaign, as many already did? Are you ready to help them and defend them? Will you have their back? Or will you just tell them to use their own resources and come to work as usual?

I hope this gives you some food for thought.

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As you do unto us

This post is for the men in mathematics who have been disturbed by the recent wave of disclosures and pushback against sexual harassment. You are horrified to learn that men have been doing such things, and you extend your sympathy to the victims, but you also need to know the possible implications for you. You’ve been asking us to clarify the rules: when you’re patting a woman on the back, where exactly do you have to stop before you get accused of grabbing her ass? Could we please draw red lines across our backs to demarcate the allowed from the unforgivable? You’ve been arguing about fairness, intentionality, proportionality, due process and reasonable doubt. You’ve been citing examples, both from the public sphere and from your own experience. I’ve never before seen so many men come to feminist discussions with well researched facts and cross-checked citations.

That’s good. I’m very glad that you are doing this. I’ve been engaging in these discussions individually on social media as time permits, but I also want to post a few things here for those who might be interested.

First, there’s a popular misconception that must be addressed, namely that such cases are only about the crossing of personal and sexual boundaries. No. Grabbing or exposing body parts at work is not just gross; it also derails and blocks our professional advancement and therefore our access to power in the society. Sadly, women at work are too often seen as primarily personal and sexual beings who should be satisfied with social popularity and possibly sexual gratification instead of seeking actual professional success. Our complaints about men who sabotage our careers are dismissed as “personal” disagreements. It therefore stands to reason that our complaints are more likely to be taken seriously when the boundaries of acceptable personal behaviour are also crossed and when the acts in question would still be viewed as deplorable if they had occurred outside of the workplace. That’s not where the story begins, though, nor does it end there.

I have some reading for you. This article by Rebecca Traister elaborates on sexual harassment being not just a sexual issue but also a work issue. This earlier one elucidates our experience of sexual harassment in the broader context of gender discrimination, including our own complicity in it, from angles that are rarely spelled out so clearly. Both articles are excellent. Both are centered on women who have attained, or aspire to, a certain professional status; while this is a narrowing of the subject (as Traister admits explicitly in both pieces), the specificity should resonate well enough with mathematicians.

I also want to know whether you are worried that you might now be treated the way that we have been treated all along. Everything about this that scares you, every possibility that careers could be thwarted or ended unfairly, every part of this system that can be turned against you so easily when those in power demand it – yes, you’re right. We know that. We’ve been living with those threats, and working under them, ever since we were allowed into professional spaces at all. We’ve been told that academic careers demand sacrifices, that maybe we were just less interested or motivated or inclined to take risks, that if you can’t stand the heat etc. But now that you have the opportunity to reflect on that heat, maybe we could discuss installing a fan and opening some windows?

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Gifted while female

Popular entertainment stories about prodigies tend to follow certain common threads. The prodigy is smart but poorly socialized and sometimes a bit of an asshole. If well-meaning people can talk him off that perch, we get a happy ending (“Good Will Hunting”). If on the other hand a controlling parent or guardian figure is allowed to take over, the prodigy is more likely than not to crash and burn (“Shine”).

“Gifted,” the story of a young math prodigy named Mary and her mathematically gifted family, draws on both of these story lines, setting up a competition between the controlling figure (Mary’s grandmother Evelyn) and a well-meaning person (Mary’s uncle Frank). It’s funny and watchable. Mckenna Grace and Chris Evans have great chemistry. It’s also a film about three generations of female mathematicians, written and directed by men, with the participation of four mathematical consultants, all of them male. And it’s a missed opportunity. It’s not that men should not make films about women: I believe they absolutely should. It’s not that I would have preferred a social treatise about gender and math: I get my fill of that elsewhere. But I think that it was possible to go much deeper, dig through the clichés and explore a much more interesting territory. That road was left not taken.

I must start with disclosure: I was a math prodigy back in the day. I skipped a few grades, entered university at the age of 15 which was 4 years ahead of the normal schedule, and participated in math olympiads, where my highest accomplishment was being on the Polish team at the 1981 IMO in Washington. It’s not necessarily that much as prodigies go – I did not win any medals at the IMO, nor did I earn a Ph.D. by the age of 20 as some do – but then I was just a small town prodigy in backwater country and so you must calibrate your expectations accordingly. My parents couldn’t drive me to university classes or special gifted programs while I was in school. No such things were available where I lived, and in any event, my parents worked more than two full-time jobs between them, including both paid employment and maintaining a 5-person household at a time when food shortages were common and few Western style conveniences were available. Nor did they have a car.

I’m saying all this not to brag or complain, but to explain my interest in the matter and state my qualifications to discuss it. I’m aware that other folks may be less particular about such movies than myself. Public images of mathematical women continue to be scarce. Given how many Hollywood films still fail the Bechdel test, I do appreciate it when two women have a conversation that not only is not about a man, but also extends to mathematical research and female ambition. But if you’re looking for a review that only comments on the actual film and refrains from speculating on what could or might have been if someone else had made a different one, this is not it. I’m laying claim to my own territory which they have breached. I know the ground here. I talk to the birds and the snakes. I’ve learned my way around the place many times over. What about you? Are you interested in learning?
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A seminar room of our own

Following my last two posts on women in mathematics and the internet, I was challenged to turn my crystal ball sideways and look at it again. I have talked about what I oppose (comments on the arXiv). I have talked about initiatives that are successful but labour-intensive and difficult to pull off (research conferences for women). Are these the only choices we have? Must the internet disadvantage women in math?

The fact is, the positive impact of the internet on my own career would be hard to overestimate. I had long-distance collaborations by email that kept me going when I was isolated at my institutions of employment. I made new mathematical contacts over the internet. I do not need the departmental coffee room to keep track of research developments or professional opportunities. I get my news from blogs, social media postings and online discussions.

It might be too much to claim that, without the internet, my isolation would have killed my research career. Remote communication existed long before computers, even if it was less efficient. It is also possible that, in other circumstances, I might have made different career choices. Yet, the particular career I did have was largely shaped by the internet, and, given that women are especially likely to be isolated within their institutions, it should be safe enough to say that my experience was not unique. It is easy to overlook this kind of impact when it’s all around us, uncontroversial and taken for granted. Still, it’s there, a vital lifeline to those of us who might otherwise have been left stranded with no way back in.

We should not forget career advice. Perhaps you’re negotiating a job offer. Articles and blog posts can tell you about the process: the timeline, the framing and manner of speech, the range of what might be expected. You can ask about your specific case in a trusted discussion forum. But when I first went on the market, I did not even know that one was supposed to negotiate at all. Somehow, I’m still here. I’m not always sure how that even happened. The withholding of information has always been a means of control, and the internet is the best antidote to it that we have.

We can, and should, go much further. In recent years, I have been making a conscious effort to avoid those environments that I consider suboptimal for me, and to spend more time instead in feminist spaces, many of them online, with people who share deeper ties with me than mere geography and profession. As my commitment and involvement there increased, as I learned and grew in these spaces, as I began to pay more attention to how they were optimized for growth and learning, I found that this also affected the ways I approach mathematics and especially mathematical collaborations. I found the advantage that has been missing from my mathematical career all along.

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A response to Scott Aaronson

Scott Aaronson has been kind enough to respond on his blog to a couple of my tweets. I would like to thank him for his interest and engagement, and encourage everyone to take the time to read his entire post. There is also an excellent discussion in the comments.

Much of the discourse focuses on the use and misuse of jargon in social and physical sciences, and specifically on words such as “privilege,” “delegitimization,” or “disenfranchised.” I’ll address that in a moment, but let me first say that my main reason for objecting to the comment that started this discussion was the phrase “This isn’t quantum field theory” at the end. I understood this, in the context of that comment and the comment to which Aaronson was responding, and in light of the similarity to the well known phrase about rocket science, to imply that social sciences do not have the same complexity as quantum field theory and should not need a multilayered structure where concepts are defined, compared, then used to define further concepts, whereupon the procedure is repeated and iterated, so as to make advanced discourse possible and manageable. Aaronson has now explained that this would be an oversimplification of his position, and I’m glad to stand corrected.

I also would like to speak to some of the other points that he makes about language, feminism, social science, and clarity of writing. I’ll try not to repeat the arguments that his commenters have already made, perhaps better than I could have done it. Still, I have no desire to hide (as some have suggested) behind Twitter’s 140-character limit and avoid making my case at more length. And so, here we are. I will just quote the last two paragraphs from Aaronson’s post, but please do go to his site to read the rest:

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On proof and progress in feminism

The recent allegations against several celebrities have led to a broader conversation on how we, as a society, don’t believe women. In a “he said, she said” situation, we trust the man and assume that the woman is either mistaken or lying. “Taking us seriously” means that we are advised of such and offered an explanation for our dismissal instead of simply being dismissed outright. It’s not only personal bias, conscious or not; there are institutional mechanisms perpetuating this state of affairs. No proof is ever sufficient if it comes from a woman. Should she present multiple affidavits, all signed and notarized in triplicate, she’ll be informed that they do not prove her claim; she, on the other hand, probably violated multiple rules and procedures by collecting and presenting her evidence in the first place. She should stop before she gets into more trouble.

Meanwhile, there’s a growing crop of men who, having declared themselves as feminists, proceed to lecture women on how they should go about equity-related matters. At a recent tech conference, a panel of male allies told women that they should just apply themselves a little bit more; another male panelist implored them to wait quietly for their good karma. Closer to home, I’ve been told repeatedly and earnestly that sexism in math would be solved if we only had unmoderated comments on research articles, or anonymous journal submissions, or some such. We’re instructed on what level of anger befits a feminist (low to nonexistent), which fights we can pick without belittling our cause (not many, and most of them were in the past), and how to address men in order to not alienate them (politely and with due deference). We’re offered advice that’s worse than useless in that we have to spend our time rebutting it. We have policies and procedures pushed on us that promote, at our expense, some alien, estranged concept called “women” that does not include us.

This is all of a piece with the culture that casts men as leaders and experts, and women as supporting characters and understudies. In feminism, as in everything else, men believe that their superior knowledge and understanding bestows upon them a natural authority and responsibility. Our equality will be measured, apportioned and dispensed to us by polite, congenial men, men who will invite us to advise and support them as needed, but will always reserve the right to overrule us should they deem it necessary.

Basic things are basic. You spoke over women in committees, silenced them in faculty meetings, denied their requests, and then you don’t understand why they don’t accept your valiant leadership with gratitude? Golly gee, the world can be so unfair. That said, we do need allies. We could use more help. And there are men who, I’m sure, have all the best intentions. And that makes it so much more disappointing when these men dismiss our hard-earned insight in favour of their own solutionism, where each problem has an easy answer and those that do not are declared nonexistent.

Consider the large body of research on unconscious racial and gender bias. Have you also paid attention to the public responses to such studies? Most men, and some women, might read a study on gender bias with astonishment and disbelief, having had no previous intimation that this was going on. They might argue back that not all men do this, and that some women succeed in tech, and women have babies and girls play with dolls. Above all, they will demand more proof. If it’s a lab study, it needs to be repeated and checked against real life statistics. If it’s statistics, then individual cases must be examined for other possible explanations. If it’s individual stories, that’s just anecdata, we need statistics and/or a lab study. To ensure appropriate collegiality, all this must be provided without hurting men’s feelings or contradicting their beliefs.

Many women, meanwhile, respond to the results of the same study with a collective “duh” on social media. It’s hardly news to them that X happens, even if the numbers might still surprise them. They see it all the time; they also see Y, Z, W, and much more. They had talked about it between themselves, thought about it, written about it at length. Nonetheless, they are the first to point out the importance of the study, to praise and publicize it. They do so because it legitimizes their own experience in the eyes of others, opens up a window in which they might be permitted to speak out. It offers evidence other than the flimsy, useless threads of their own words.

None of their knowledge is available to those who insist on conducting every conversation as it if were a criminal trial. There’s no chance of normal discourse. Why did I say “they see it all the time” when there was this one time it didn’t happen? And that other time, too? Who are “they,” anyway? Can we have their names and institutional affiliations? Have we heard the other side of the story? And so women are studied as if we were baboons, endangered for some reason but incapable of articulating what it is that ails us, so that researchers have to rely on statistics, experiments and third-party accounts.

Do you care about proof, or about progress? You can read all the peer-reviewed research, attend all the official panels, and you’ll still only see the tip of the iceberg. You’ll see the isolated facts but you’ll have no idea how to connect them. You’ll see the molehill that can be proved in a scientific paper, but not the mountain that we are forbidden to talk about for confidentiality reasons, and not the one that we stopped talking about because nobody believed us, either.

This post, unlike most of what I write, has no hyperlinks. This is on purpose. There are many related links in my earlier posts, and more in my Twitter feed linked on the sidebar. It’s easy enough to google around and find more. Alternatively, you could entertain the possibility that what I’m telling you is the actual truth of my experience. That would be a good start.

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Diversity and mathematics

bell curve1

Mother Jones, last year:

According to a new psychology paper, our political passions can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills. More specifically, the study finds that people who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.

I was reminded of it while reading the article “Does Diversity Trump Ability? An Example of the Misuse of Mathematics in the Social Sciences” in the Notices of the AMS. The author, Abigail Thompson, takes on a well known and widely cited paper:

“Diversity” has become an important concept in the modern university, affecting admissions, faculty hiring, and administrative appointments. In the paper “Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers” [1], L. Hong and S. Page claim to prove that “To put it succinctly, diversity trumps ability.” We show that their arguments are fundamentally flawed.

Why should mathematicians care? Mathematicians have a responsibility to ensure that mathematics is not misused. The highly specialized language of mathematics can be used to obscure rather than reveal truth. It is easy to cross the line between analysis and advocacy when strongly held beliefs are in play. Attempts to find a mathematical justification for “diversity” as practiced in universities provide an instructive example of where that line has been crossed.

Thompson proceeds to shred both the “mathematical theorem” and the numerical examples from the Hong-Page paper. The actual paper is available here, and I have satisfied myself that Thompson is not unfair in her mathematical analysis. Her article, however, does not exist in a vacuum. It will be read in mathematics departments, organizations and committees where “diversity” is viewed as a bureaucratic imposition made on them by distant administrators who don’t understand research, even as their few women faculty often find themselves alienated and sidelined. That’s why I would like to add a few things.

First, there are many sound reasons for diversity that have nothing to do the article in question. (I will restrict this post to the benefits of diversity per se, independently of how that diversity was achieved. Affirmative action has its own reasons and will get its own post soon.) It should be common sense, not a mathematical theorem, that there are advantages in having a wider perspective and more than one problem-solving approach. Continue reading

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