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Brian Flores, Equal Opportunity, and Affirmative Action

photograph of NFL emblem on football

We need to talk about Brian Flores’s lawsuit – the ex-Miami Dolphins head coach alleging racial discrimination and, once again, highlighting the lack of diversity in owners’ boxes and front offices around the league. But this isn’t a story about the NFL. It isn’t even about sports. Instead, this is a story about affirmative action; it’s a story about the relationship between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome, between fairness and equity.

The NFL has a problem (okay, the NFL has a few problems). One of the most obvious ways to see this is in representation. African Americans make up 70% of the NFL’s player base, but there is only one Black head coach working in the league today. (And there are even fewer Black owners.) While any result that fails to produce absolute statistical proportionality need not suggest nefarious intent, the degree to which these figures diverge warrants at least a raised eyebrow. It’s difficult to explain why so few Black players make the transition from the field to the front office. You’d think that at least some of the skills that made for a stand-out player might also translate to their proficiency with X’s and O’s. More generally, you’d expect that the same interest and commitment that leads so many African Americans to play the game at a professional level would produce a corresponding number of others deeply invested in coaching or managing.

Enter: the Rooney Rule. In an attempt to shake up this monochrome landscape, league officials implemented a policy requiring teams to interview at least one (now two) minority candidates for any head coaching vacancy (now coordinator positions as well). The hope was that by guaranteeing that a more diverse pool of finalists gets the opportunity to make their pitch, diversity in the coaching ranks would soon follow. It was assumed that all these candidates needed was to be given the chance to change hearts and minds in person. At long last, progress might finally be made in erasing the vast differences in the way white and non-white coaches have historically been evaluated.

The details of Flores’ lawsuit confirm that no such revolution has come to pass. Owners and general managers treat the Rooney Rule as a mere formality – another hoop that must be jumped, another box that must be ticked. The organizations identified in Flores’s suit scheduled a sit-down as formally required, but apparently couldn’t bring themselves to take him or the interview seriously. The results of their deliberations had been decided long before Flores walked into the room. These executives were playacting, but couldn’t even be bothered to try to disguise it. That said, Flores’s allegations aren’t about a failure of etiquette or good manners, they concern a league that still refuses to acknowledge even the appearance of racial bias, let alone the existence of an actual, pervasive problem. It seems the Rooney Rule may have been doomed from the start; as it turns out, the problem runs much deeper than simply putting a face with a name.

So who – if anyone – might be to blame for the NFL’s present predicament?

A not insignificant number of folks will answer: no one. Brian Flores isn’t owed a head coaching gig. These organizations are free to hire whomever they so choose. Head coaches represent a significant investment of time and resources, and it would be absurd for anyone to dictate to NFL teams who is and is not the most qualified person for the job. Jim Trotter, for example, recently recounted his interchange with an owner who suggested that anybody griping about the lack of representation in the NFL “should go buy their own team and hire who they want to hire.”

Others, meanwhile, will be inclined to point to race-conscious policies (like the Rooney Rule) as the guilty party. To these voices, it seems completely wrong-headed to pick some number out of thin air and then complain when we fail to reach that arbitrary diversity benchmark. Looking at race is precisely what got us into this mess, so surely it’s absolute folly to think that intentionally putting our thumb on the scale could get us out of it.

What’s worse, mandating that teams do their due diligence – and, more specifically, demanding that due diligence take the particular form of race-conscious interviewing practices – reduces people of color to tokens. It’s no wonder Flores reports feeling embarrassed – these folks will say – the Rooney Rule set him up, time and time again, to be treated as nothing more than a courtesy invite. Flores was required to go on performing while everyone else in the room was in on the joke. And we should expect none of that behavior to change, they’ll say, if we continue to force hiring committees to go through the motions when they’ve already made up their minds.

This, critics will tell you, is precisely the trouble with initiatives so enamored with equality of outcome – or equity – where an attempt is made to jerry-rig some result built to suit our preferred optics (say, having management roles more accurately reflect teams’ composition). We shouldn’t focus all our attention on meticulously shaping some preferred result; we can’t elevate some and demote others all according to irrelevant and impersonal considerations based in appearances. Any such effort refuses to appreciate the role of individual choice – of freedom, responsibility, and merit. (Owners don’t want to be told how they have to go about picking a winner, they know exactly what winners look like.) As long as we can maintain the right conditions – a level playing field of equal opportunity where everyone receives a fair shake – then we have no cause to wring our hands over the (mis)perception of unequal outcomes. There’s no need to invoke the dreaded language of “quotas,” there’s no cause for infringing on the people in charge’s freedom to choose. You simply call the game, deal the cards, and let the chips fall where they may.

Brian Flores’s lawsuit, however, insists that the deck is stacked against him and others like him. Indeed, Flores’s claim is that equality of opportunity does not exist. He’s alleging that he’s been passed over in the coaching carousel specifically because he is Black. Flores supports these claims with his personal experience of sham interviews and by pointing to a double standard evidenced by the accelerated rise of white coaches in comparison to their more accomplished Black counterparts. In essence, Flores argues these experiences and findings (as well as the individual accounts of some 40 other Black coaches, coordinators, and managers) all indicate racial discrimination is an all-too-real force in the NFL. Without an intentional and forceful intervention, business as usual will continue.

Given this fresh round of accusations, the NFL can’t continue to take a hands-off approach to the problem of representation; it clearly isn’t going to work itself out. Even the meager measures the league put in place to support equal opportunity are not being followed. The Rooney Rule has no teeth and seems to have resulted in no tangible gains. In the end, the policy relies on honorable intentions, personal commitments, and good-faith efforts. As Stephen Holder of The Athletic writes,

We just have to come to terms with an undeniable and inconvenient truth: You can encourage and even incentivize people to do the right thing. But what you cannot do is make them want to do the right thing.

The only way things change is if the people in power take the policy seriously, and it’s not clear that the appropriate carrots or sticks exist for encouraging teams to comply with the letter of the law – let alone embrace its spirit. Achieving the desired result demands an alternative approach. At some point outcomes have to matter.

So, where does that leave us? What have we learned? Where do we go from here? It’s difficult to know how to go about balancing two competing convictions: 1) focusing solely on equality of outcomes disrespects individuality 2) relying solely on equality of opportunity assumes an unbiased system. Or, perhaps more pointedly: 1) it’s wrong to reduce people solely to their various group identities, but 2) it’s also wrong to fail to appreciate the way people, organizations, institutions reduce people solely to their various group identities.

There is no obvious way to bridge the chasm between these two commitments. But maybe we could start by acknowledging that it isn’t hopelessly reductive to think that it might be best if, for instance, the next Supreme Court Justice wasn’t another white man; to think that no single group identity is so inherently qualified as to explain an absolute stranglehold on the positions of power and privilege; to think that for only the eighth time in 230+ years it might be best to break with tradition. Because, if the Rooney Rule has taught us anything, it’s that if you don’t ever actually commit to change, it doesn’t ever actually happen.

Ethics and Job Apps: Why Use Lotteries

photograph of lottery balls coming out of machine

This semester I’ve been 1) applying for jobs, and 2) running a job search to select a team of undergraduate researchers. This has resulted in a curious experience. As an employer, I’ve been tempted to use various techniques in running my job search that, as an applicant, I’ve found myself lamenting. Similarly, as an applicant, I’ve made changes to my application materials designed to frustrate those very purposes I have as an employer.

The source of the experience is that the incentives of search committees and the incentives job applicants don’t align. As an employer, my goal is to select the best candidate for the job. While as an applicant, my goal is that I get a job, whether I’m the best candidate or not.

As an employer, I want to minimize the amount of work it takes for me to find a dedicated employee. Thus, as an employer, I’m inclined to add ‘hoops’ to the application process, by requiring applicants to jump through those hoops, I make sure I only look through applications of those who are really interested in the job. But as an applicant, my goal is to minimize the amount of time I spend on each application. Thus, I am frustrated with job applications that require me to develop customized materials.

In this post, I want to do three things. First, I want to describe one central problem I see with application systems — what I will refer to as the ‘treadmill problem.’ Second, I want to propose a solution to this problem — namely the use of lotteries to select candidates. Third, I want to address an objection employers might have to lotteries — namely that it lowers the average quality of an employer’s hires.

Part I—The Treadmill Problem

As a job applicant, I care about the quality of my application materials. But I don’t care about the quality intrinsically. Rather, I care about the quality in relation to the quality of other applications. Application quality is a good, but it is a positional good. What matters is how strong my applications are in comparison to everyone else.

Take as an analogy the value of height while watching a sports game. If I want to see what is going on, it’s not important just to be tall, rather it’s important to be taller than others. If everyone is sitting down, I can see better if I stand up. But if everyone stands up, I can’t see any better than when I started. Now I’ll need to stand on my tiptoes. And if everyone else does the same, then I’m again right back where I started.

Except, I’m not quite back where I started. Originally everyone was sitting comfortably. Now everyone is craning uncomfortably on their tiptoes, but no one can see any better than when we began.

Job applications work in a similar way. Employers, ideally, hire whosoever application is best. Suppose every applicant just spends a single hour pulling together application materials. The result is that no application is very good, but some are better than others. In general, the better candidates will have somewhat better applications, but the correlation will be imperfect (since the skills of being good at philosophy only imperfectly correlate with the skills of being good at writing application materials).

Now, as an applicant, I realize that I could put in a few hours polishing my application materials — nudging out ahead of other candidates. Thus, I have a reason to spend time polishing.

But everyone else realizes the same thing. So, everyone spends a few hours polishing their materials. And so now the result is that every application is a bit better, but still with some clearly better than others. Once again, in general, the better candidates will have somewhat better applications, but the correlation will remain imperfect.

Of course, everyone spending a few extra hours on applications is not so bad. Except that the same incentive structure iterates. Everyone has reason to spend ten hours polishing, now fifteen hours polishing. Everyone has reason to ask friends to look over their materials, now everyone has reason to hire a job application consultant. Every applicant is stuck in an arms race with every other, but this arms race does not create any new jobs. So, in the end, no one is better off than if everyone could have just agreed to an armistice at the beginning.

Job applicants are left on a treadmill, everyone must keep running faster and faster just to stay in place. If you ever stop running, you will slide off the back of the machine. So, you must keep running faster and faster, but like the Red Queen in Lewis Carrol’s Through the Looking Glass, you never actually get anywhere.

Of course, not all arms races are bad. A similar arms race exists for academic journal publications. Some top journals have a limited number of article slots. If one article gets published, another article does not. Thus, every author is in an arms race with every other. Each person is trying to make sure their work is better than everyone else’s.

But in the case of research, there is a positive benefit to the arms race. The quality of philosophical research goes up. That is because while the quality of my research is a positional good as far as my ability to get published, it is a non-positional good in its contribution to philosophy. If every philosophy article is better, then the philosophical community is, as a whole, better off. But the same is not true of job application materials. No large positive externality is created by everyone competing to polish their cover letters.

There may be some positive externalities to the arms race. Graduate students might do better research in order to get better publications. Graduate students might volunteer more of their time in professional service in order to bolster their CV.

But even if parts of the arms race have positive externalities, many other parts do not. And there is a high opportunity cost to the time wasted in the arms race. This is a cost paid by applicants, who have less time with friends and family. And a cost paid by the profession, as people spend less time teaching, writing, and helping the community in ways that don’t contribute to one’s CV.

This problem is not unique to philosophy. Similar problems have been identified in other sorts of applications. One example is grant writing in the sciences. Right now, top scientists must spend a huge amount of their time optimizing grant proposals. One study found that researchers collectively spent a total of 550 working years on grant proposals for Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council’s 2012 funding round.

This might have a small benefit in leading research to come up with better projects. But most of the time spent in the arms race is expended just so everyone can stay in place. Indeed, there are some reasons to think the arms race actually leads people to develop worse projects, because scientists optimize for grant approval and not scientific output.

Another example is college admissions. Right now, high school students spend huge amounts of time and money preparing for standardized tests like the SAT. But everyone ends up putting in the time just to stay in place. (Except, of course, for those who lack the resources required to put in the time; they just get left behind entirely.)

Part II—The Lottery Solution

Because I was on this treadmill as a job applicant, I didn’t want to force other people onto a treadmill of their own. So, when running my own job search, I decided to modify a solution to the treadmill problem that has been suggested for both grant funding and college admissions. I ran a lottery. I had each applying student complete a short assignment, and then ‘graded’ the assignments on a pass/fail system. I then choose my assistants at random from all those who had demonstrated they would be a good fit. I judged who was a good fit. I didn’t try to judge, of those who were good fits, who fit best.

This allowed students to step off the treadmill. Students didn’t need to write the ‘best’ application. They just needed an application that showed they would be a good fit for the project.

It seems to me that it would be best if philosophy departments similarly made hiring decisions based on a lottery. Hiring committees would go through and assess which candidates they think are a good fit. Then, they would use a lottery system to decide who is selected for the job.

The details would need to be worked out carefully and identifying the best system would probably require a fair amount of experimentation. For example, it is not clear to me the best way to incorporate interviews into the lottery process.

One possibility would be to interview everyone you think is likely a good fit. This, I expect, would prove logistically overwhelming. A second possibility, and I think the one I favor, would be to use a lottery to select the shortlist of candidates, rather than to select the final candidate. The search committee would go through the application and identify everyone who looks like a good fit. They would then use a lottery to narrow down to a shortlist of three to five candidates who come out for an interview. While the shortlisted candidates would be placed on the treadmill, a far smaller number of people are subject to the wasted effort. A third possibility would use the lottery to select a single final candidate, and then use an in-person interview merely to confirm the selected candidate really is a good fit. There is a lot of evidence that hiring committees systematically overweight the evidential weight of interviews, and that this creates tons of statistical noise in hiring decisions (see chapters 11 and 24 in Daniel Kahneman’s book Noise).

Assuming the obstacles could be overcome, however, lotteries would have an important benefit in going some way towards breaking the treadmill.

There are a range of other benefits as well.

  • Lotteries would decrease the influence of bias on hiring decisions. Implicit bias tends to make a difference in close decisions. Thus, bias is more likely to flip a first and second choice, than it is to flip someone from making it onto the shortlist in the first place.
  • Lotteries would decrease the influence of networking, and so go some way towards democratizing hiring. At most, an in-network connection will get someone into the lottery but it won’t increase you chance of winning the lottery.
  • It would create a more transparent way to integrate hiring preferences. A department might prefer to hire someone who can teach bioethics, or might prefer to hire a female philosopher, but not want to restrict the search to people who meet such criteria. One way to integrate such preferences more rigorously would be to explicitly weight candidates in the lottery by such criteria.
  • Lotteries could decrease interdepartmental hiring drama. It is often difficult to get everyone to agree on a best candidate. It is generally not too difficult to get everyone to agree on a set of candidates all who are considered a good fit.

Part III—The Accuracy Drawback

While there are advantages accrue to applicants and the philosophical community, employers might not like a lottery system. The problem for employers is that a lottery will decrease the average quality of hires.

A lottery system means you should expect to hire the average candidate who meets the ‘good fit’ criteria. Thus, as long as trying to pick the best candidate results in a candidate at least above average, then the average quality of the hire goes down with a lottery.

However, while there is something to this point, the point is weaker than most people think. That is because humans tend to systematically overestimate the reliability of judgment. When you look at the empirical literature a pattern emerges. Human judgment has a fair degree of reliability, but most of that reliability comes from identifying the ‘bad fits.’

Consider science grants. Multiple studies have compared the scores that grant proposals receive to the eventual impact of research (as measured by future citations). What is found is that scores do correlate with research impact, but almost all of that effect is explained by the worst performing grants getting low scores. If you restrict your assessment to the good proposals, researchers are terrible at judging which of the good proposals are actually best. Similarly, while there is general agreement about which proposals are good and which bad, evaluators rarely agree about which proposals are best.

A similar sort of pattern emerges for college admission counselors. Admissions officers can predict who is likely to do poorly in school, but can’t reliably predict which of the good students will do best.

Humans are fairly good at judging which candidates would make a good fit. We are bad at judging which good fit candidates would actually be best. Thus, most of the benefit of human judgment comes at the level of identifying the set of candidates who would make a good fit, not at the level of deciding between those candidates. This, in turn, suggests that the cost to employers of instituting a lottery system is much smaller than we generally appreciate.

Of course, I doubt I’ll convince people to immediately use lotteries on major important decisions. Thus, for now I’ll suggest that for smaller less consequential decisions, try a lottery system. If you are a graduate department, select half your graduating class the traditional way, and half by a lottery of those who seem like a good fit. Don’t tell faculty which are which, and I expect several years later it will be clear that the lottery system works just as well. Or, like me, if you are hiring some undergraduate researchers, try the lottery system. Make small experiments and let’s see if we can’t buck the current status quo.

Affirmative Action and A Medical University’s Attempt at No Girls Allowed

Slightly angled view of the exterior of a large complex of buildings known as the Tokyo Medical and Dental University with a stand of trees in front

On Friday, August 3rd, the Japanese government urged Tokyo Medical University to uncover the results of their investigation into allegations that the entrance exams of women were altered to prevent them from qualifying as applicants. In 2010, successful female applicants reached 38 percent and sources report that efforts began to reduce this increase in potential female doctors, resulting in 10% of successful exam scores being lowered.

Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has an economic platform that touts equality, with a focus on improving women’s place in the workforce. With initiatives that together have been dubbed “womenomics”, Abe’s policies have been praised as beginning “a new era in female success.” He aimed to achieve gender equality in the workforce by 2015. Currently, 3.7% of executives of Japanese companies are women, 73% of Japanese companies have no women at the management level, and 57.7% of women are engaged in “non-regular” employment. A new era is badly needed because Japan has been sliding down the World Economic Forum’s world ranking of the gender gap. In 2008, it ranked 80th, but it was down to 111th in 2017 and 114th in 2017. This slipping has brought skepticism to the effectiveness of Abe’s womenomics initiatives.

It is an uphill battle to reverse the gender issues in the workforce when Members of Parliament publicly claim that single women are a burden on the state and should be producing more children. Yet it was the sexist conception of women as worse candidates because of their association with family responsibilities that was the very prejudice cited as motive behind Tokyo Medical University’s application falsifications.

The difficulties in meeting the goals of workforce equality has made Abe revise his goals this year: “In 2016 the government revised an ambitious national target of filling 30% of senior positions in both the public and private sectors with women by 2020. The new targets were 7% for senior government jobs and 15% at companies.” Setting such goals and quotas is controversial, and some executives and government officials worry that these policies may increase the “quantity” of women in the workforce while allowing the “quality” to decrease.  

The concerns with setting goals to increase representation in the workforce or universities are not new, and invoke the debate over strategies of affirmative action. “Affirmative action” refers to steps taken to increase the representation of marginalized groups, either in university systems, government, or the workplace.

In 1965 in the US, the Civil Rights Act included affirmative action language that barred companies, unions, or other institutions from discriminatory practices. In particular, the Department of Labor put into place regional numerical goals to increase fair representation in the workforce.  

The use of gender and racial preferences in hiring and admissions is, of course, controversial. In their favor is the consideration that giving marginalized groups preference is just, given these groups’ previous exclusion: this preference rights the harm, therefore evening the playing field. This consideration has been attacked because the wrong is systemic but the redress individual. In other words, someone could get preferential treatment who may not have faced discrimination themselves in their individual life.

Further, this preferential treatment may come at the cost of the non-preferred groups who are not responsible for the systemic problems faced by the marginalized groups. We could think of the harm in terms of an applicant or employee receiving “less consideration,” or in terms of not getting their right (if there is one) to “equal consideration”. Thus, appeals to justice, rights, and harms can be brought out both in favor of bringing race and gender into play when making workplace and university choices as well as leaving them out.

However, the very pervasiveness of privilege given to white people and men is often cited as justification for giving preferential treatment to the less privileged. James Rachels and Mary Anne Warren point to the likelihood that non-marginalized individuals have benefited or would benefit from their privileged positions as justification to use preferential practices as a way of neutralizing this imbalance. This can be taken to mitigate the concern about the systemic versus individual level of harm and reparation.

The use of race and gender as criteria for employment and admission seems to some to be problematic in principle, whether used to increase or decrease an applicant’s favorability. For instance, Lisa Newton’s objection to affirmative action is that it uses race and gender to distinguish among people, which is what was objectionable in creating conditions of marginalization in the first place: “Just as the previous discrimination did, this reverse discrimination violates the public equality which defines citizenship” (Newton 1973, 310).

In practice in the US, affirmative action in the workforce has been implemented since the ‘70s in order to be in line with anti-discrimination policies — rather than on the justification of righting past wrongs, offsetting unfair advantages, appropriately rewarding the deserving, or producing some social goods. Instead, the preferential treatment righted the discrimination that would continue from practices that were permissible before the Civil Rights Movement.

The quotas and goals that Abe and his policies aim towards in Japan would impact the workforce considerably. Expectations of women and men have varied significantly and the efforts to close the gender gap would have far reaching effects (some estimate increasing women’s presence in the workforce would increase Japan’s GDP by 13%). Preferential hiring practices may be one tool in altering the workforce’s landscape, but there are social features that also need to be dealt with.  

In 2016, while the percentage of men and women with university degrees did not vary significantly (59% of women and 52% of men), the family and household responsibilities certainly did: women completed an average of 4.26 hours of housework a day versus 1.38 hours completed by men, and while women spent an average of 7.57 hours with children, men spent less than half that much (3.08 hours). Japan faces a childcare crisis, making it difficult to lighten the household responsibilities on women and allow them in the workforce.  

The underlying attitudes about the roles of women loom large in the efforts to close the gender gap in the workforce as well as Tokyo Medical University’s recent efforts to keep that gap in place in medicine. A key tool to deal with a history of discriminatory practices has been affirmative action, preferential weighing of marginalized groups in order to reach some desired level of representation. The effectiveness of this tool and the grounds of justifying the preferential treatment come with difficult questions of equality and distributive justice. Policies themselves won’t change bigoted attitudes, of course, and perhaps ideally gender and race wouldn’t be parameters that would matter in hiring practices. They demonstrably affect a person’s outcome in the workforce, however, and have throughout history.

 

Affirmative Hesitations in India and the United States

In February of 2016, caste tensions that have always smoldered under the covers of Indian life were shocked back into the open. February’s caste riots in Haryana, India, brought much needed attention to the ways in which the long-outlawed caste system manifests itself in modern India. These rioters joined the peculiar yet growing number of protesting high castes. The Jats, members of a high caste in northern India, violently protested to change their status from a high caste to a low caste to gain from the government sanctioned benefits enjoyed by the lower castes.

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