Token Award

Apr 17 2012 Published by under women in science

This week, let's talk about the rewards of diversity:

Some departments, schools, professional organizations, and so on have awards that are specifically for women, such as an award by one of the societies in my field for an outstanding female PhD student. As far as I can tell, these are not very prestigious awards and don't come with a lot of money. I guess there are some awards for women at the national level that are better in these terms but most are not. My university also has awards for outstanding minority students (anyone not white or Asian-American). These also are not prestigious and they come with less money than some other awards that are for anyone. I am offended by all these token awards but at the same time I am glad they are there, if that makes any sense. I am considering nominating one of my students for one of these awards but I can't get over the feeling that I may be setting her up for a humiliating experience, not if she doesn't get the award but if she does. Should I go ahead with the nomination anyway?

I have very mixed feelings about these awards too. I think they were set up with the best of intentions, but they do have the effect of relegating women and underrepresented minorities to a category of awards that are lower in value ($) and lower in prestige than other awards because these awards are not based on "merit". In some cases, the existence of these awards seem to free an organization (or whatever) from having to make an effort to consider women for other (merit-based) awards. I have written about this before and am not going to repeat the main philosophical arguments for and against these awards, but will focus today only on the practical aspect: should you nominate your students for such awards?

I would, and I do. However conflicted I feel about these awards, I take the practical approach in cases involving students. If there is a fellowship or award for which one of my students is eligible for whatever reason, I nominate them. Fellowships funds for students are scarce, and if such things exist, I want all of my students to have as much chance for success as possible, and these fellowships can help a lot.

If, however, I were in a position in which I could influence the existence and purpose of some of these awards -- the ones that really are "token" in all respects -- I would try to get the award changed or eliminated. (I have only done this in one case so far). In some cases, this can mean getting rid of the special designation of certain awards as only for women, such as in a department or subfield in which there is a strong (in number and/or achievement level) contingent of women who will receive awards based on merit as a natural outcome of the awards evaluation process. Maybe those situations are still rare, but they exist. In those case, there is no need for these 'special' awards.

For now, though, some of these awards are necessary and I nominate female students and colleagues for them. Of course, that doesn't mean I don't also nominate them for other awards -- the ones that are not specifically for women or underrepresented minorities -- but if there is an additional opportunity, I go for it. It would be a mistake to assume that because an award has a special designation that seems to involve an irrelevant factor (gender, ethnicity) that the recipients aren't truly outstanding in terms of intellectual merit, or whatever would be considered a "relevant" criterion.

Is there anyone reading this who would not nominate a student (for example) for a fellowship or award that was specifically for an underrepresented group for the reason of being offended by these awards? (and if so, are you a member of this underrepresented group yourself, or not?)


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19 responses so far

  • Eli Rabett says:

    While generally of the all money is green school Eli notes that there is one particular game played with these fellowships/awards that has to be guarded against. When a school/department/agency has fellowship awards for graduate students from under represented groups and those that are open to all it is not uncommon that an outstanding graduate student from the under represented group who would win in the open category is given one of the special awards so that more funding will be available for the "best" students (what "best" is, is another discussion). Been there, seen that, generally described as a twofer by the people who have control of the open category.

    It also happens with grants, specifically program managers with two proposals they would like to fund, one with a PI from an under represented group, will go looking around their agency for a pot of money they can access for the PI from the under represented group.

    And, of course, the Andrew Sullivan's and James Derbyshires of the world take this to mean that one of the two awardees (guess which one) were intellectually inferior. Often it is the inverse of course.

  • Liz says:

    I really don't see how winning an award with certain criteria would be considered "humiliating" by anyone. There are plenty of low value, not very prestigious awards that are open to everyone as well so it is not as if all awards that white males are applicable for are huge prestigious awards. As a grad student, I would much rather win a small award than no award at all, regardless of who it was open to.

    A lot of these small awards at my school come from private alumni donors who can set whatever sort of criteria they want. I have won small awards specifically available for women, and one award only open to those from a certain part of the country (which was donated by an alum who hailed from that region) and have been very pleased with these awards.

    As a PI, if a student asked, I would happily nominate them for anything that was applicable. If I saw an award come along with "special criteria", I would email my student at say "let me know if you are interested in being nominated for this award". That way you leave it up to the student as to whether they want to self-identify with the group that the award is targeted at or not.

  • anonanon says:

    I won a token award for 'women in sci'. It was not only token in that only women could enter (one from each subdiscipline), when we went to the award day, it turned out that everyone won. As if we were preschool kids who couldn't cope with losing.

    In one sense, it is a nice line on the CV, because the people who read my CV can't tell how pointless this award is.
    But in another sense, it feels very silly and slightly embarassing.

    But I still think I'd nominate students for all awards they are eligible for. As long at the award name isn't "Token award for minority women with disabilities", then once it is just a line on the CV, no one can tell.

  • Anony says:

    As a recipient of one of these awards, I would find it humiliating, but as a professor, I would see it as more $$ for a deserving student. So I agree with the main points of the post.

  • Anonymoose says:

    I was a finalist for the women's version of the CRA Outstanding Undergraduate Award (a national award for CS). Not only is it a women's award, but there is also a men's award (which women are not eligible to compete for). Being a winner, finalist, or honorable mention of the men's award is very prestigious, but people don't consider the women's award the same. I got told about 500 times how my award wasn't worth anything, and I couldn't disagree. I was embarrassed about the whole thing. Frustrated, too, since I think I would have had a shot at being a finalist or receiving an honorable mention against the group of men.

  • Pascale says:

    I recently posted ( an article that addressed the issue of women-only awards which have increased exponentially in recent years:
    Yet women-only awards can camouflage women’s under-representation by inflating the number of female award recipients, leading to the impression that no disparities exist.

    Ultimately, these awards may do more harm:
    Recall that research suggests that women and men both assign lower value to work done by women. Awards to women only, then, may implicitly support the cultural belief that women’s scientific efforts are not as important as those of men, thus contributing to the ‘ghettoization’ of women’s scientific achievements, perhaps even leading to the oversight of women as candidates for unrestricted awards.

    Does that mean I would never nominate someone for an award, particularly one with money attached? No, but I would want to try and get rid of these "special" awards for these reasons.

    • Dev says:

      If the money is used to support a serious student it should be welcomed and acknowledged by the donor and recipient. But it should not be used by the bureaucracy to score more points on something else that they were really after, living the recipient in a clustered situation or with an implicit tag that prevents open competition.

      The donors may be honestly trying to help solve situations they identify with, and 'tag' that cause to the award, or may be playing a game for higher gains.

      But as long as the system does not exclude the minority from open competition it will be honest philanthropic activities.

      I have no doubt that some women and minorities are great, maybe even better than other group.

      If you think about it more you will notice that the classifications are increasingly hard to meet the applicants status. So maybe eventually they will not exclude an applicant that partially meets them, but rather award it because it will do a good job with it.

  • Bashir says:

    I don't particularly like these "best minority" awards*. They are often used as a cop out for taking a critical look at who is winning (or even being nominated for) the "regular awards". As diversity goes, path of least resistance is usually taken. Put up a women/minorities award, maybe even let them all win. It puts a nice face on things.

    *(That is different than fellowships or other professional development awards that have a point and are actually helpful for the recipient (travel money, etc.). I got one of those as a grad student and it was super helpful.)

  • GMP says:

    One excellent female faculty member at my alma mater was hired as a diversity hire at the same time as another male colleague in her field. Even though several of her colleagues have told her many times that the only reason they brought her in like this was was so they could get two hires (there was an extra pot of money for diversity hires and they decided why not bring in two stellar candidates instead of just one), she is still really peeved about this.

    I don't know what I think about this issue. I generally try to be pragmatic above all else, so if there's considerable money involved that could help the student, I would definitely nominate them. Also, there are some really prestigious minority and/or women awards, such as the L'Oreal fellowship -- no shame whatsoever in getting one of those. So I guess is my attitude is decide on a case by case basis. And definitely nominate students for the regular awards (not restricted to minorities).

    *tangent alert*
    I personally am disappointed that there are so few awards and fellowships that my international students are ever eligible for. I would like to see more opportunities for them to fatten their resumes, as my best students so far have largely been international. Often I see the CVs of a good US student and a much better international student at PhD completion time, where the US student already has a string of fellowships and awards for which only US residents and nationals were eligible, which make his/her CV appear much stronger on paper compared to the technically superior international candidate. I know this is the US and Americans should have priority and other advantages, but I wish there were more options open to excellent international candidates who typically face considerable obstacles in their careers...

  • Dev says:

    Again, define 'merit'. That is a better starting point because that has always been tricky.

    And, unless you are wealthy most students need money to cover the education costs, so you should nominate them on the basis of money need and true educational or scholarship merit, and independent of ithe profiling in either direction.

    The recipient will always identify with the helping hand, but shouldn't encased him/her/it. hahaha

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    We had the situation, in faculty searches, that if we found a qualified minority applicant, a second position, for that person, would magically appear.

    My wife won a "Best Freshman" award, not sex based. She transferred to another university because she did not want to study where she was the best student present.
    So maybe awards are not always a good thing for the awarding institution.

  • Anonymous says:

    I am a woman in a hard science and I have won a few of these awards. I also will be taking a position at a university as a diversity hire in the fall. I have incredibly conflicted feelings about these.

    Once I was told explicitly that I shouldn't get Award X (both genders eligible) because the previous year I'd gotten Award Y (for women only) by the man chairing the committee for Award X (who probably shouldn't have told me this). I was told I needed to give others a chance to get recognition. (Award X is widely recognized and more prestigious, although award Y came with more money.) Which more than negates the intended purpose of these awards - in practice, they're being used as an excuse to not recognize women's work and indeed to institutionalize the practice of undervaluing women's work. That said, I certainly was glad to get Award Y - it helped me pay off my undergraduate student loans six months earlier. Had I not even entered the competition, that wouldn't necessarily mean I would have gotten Award X. An award is better than no award. I just don't know if what I heard from the man chairing the committee was true and the reason I didn't get award X or if the rest of the committee ignored him. It was yet another affirmation that my work as a woman is not judged on its merits. I am judged in a separate category - as a female scientist rather than as a scientist. Sure, occasionally this works in my favor because I can get more awards - but those awards are tainted and are actually used against me.

    Another thing is that these awards are frequently used to distract us. Of course our institution doesn't have a problem with women - look, we have an award specifically for them! Clearly that means we don't have to address all of these other crazy things that happen. These are not the droids you are looking for.

    When it came time to get a faculty position, though, I have a two body problem. I wanted to finally be able to live in the same city as my husband. When a way to make that happen came in the form of a diversity hire at a university, there is no I would turn that down. I know some of my future colleagues think less of me for it. But you know what? Most of those guys would claim I was only hired because I'm a woman if I'd been hired in an open search anyways. For every notable professional accomplishment I've had, at least one man tells me I only got it because I'm a woman. This has included (but is not limited to) undergraduate research opportunities, awards which both men and women are eligible for, invited talks at conferences, my PhD, my post doc... Funny, few people acknowledge all of the unfair, sexist, misogynist, and frequently outright crazy things that people say and do to me happen because I'm a woman. If I'm gonna pay the penalty for being a woman, I might as well use all the benefits that come with it.

  • Andrea says:

    I hate these awards, too. I'd much rather be nominated for a "real" award (i.e., a prestigious award available to white males) than a less prestigious, "here you go, sweetie...something extra for you, too," award.

    A little off-topic: I'm a female grad student who received an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. This fellowship is available to both men and women. However, I've now twice encountered people who have insinuated that the only reason I got the NSF Fellowship is because I'm female...

    It's as if people really don't want to believe that women are DESERVING.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I am usually all about take the money and run. But Rabett raises a very good consideration. Food for thought . I expect it will end up as a which case I have to remain with my original stance. Take the special awards.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Of course the best solution is to only make awards to dead people.

  • liz says:

    i know this is tangental to the topic, but i don't like the idea of graduate student awards at all. too much of the time they're based on what subjective criteria (what the PI thinks, PI bias) rather than objective criteria, obviously, because the student hasn't had a lot of time to build a research portfolio, and research portfolios at the graduate level can be completely influenced by luck. why elevate some students over others which is completely arbitrary from the start?

  • Anonymous says:

    This isn't quite about "awards," but I applied for and received a women-only fellowship. As a named fellowship, it's stated purpose was to "help women graduate students achieve success in [FIELD]." In my application I wrote about how I needed extra money that year so I could hire a part-time care-giver to help watch my 6-month old son while I did field research. I am not conflicted about this in any way. Women bear a greater burden when it comes to care of young children, and as a grad student parent I'm happy to accept any help (monetary or otherwise) that I can get my hands on.

  • Anonymous says:

    Another way to cast these sorts of women-only or minority-only awards to to change them into awards for people who *promote* diversity, rather than the diverse people themselves. I'm glad that my university has one such large award for grad students. There is a white male grad student in my department who is really into creating a welcoming atmosphere for all. (As a queer man, he understands discrimination, but his status as such doesn't show up on paper.) He has started all sorts of initiatives in the past few years that not just postively affect LGBT students, but also women, minorities, and those with disabilities. He's the type of person who should be getting awards for diversity (even though he's a white male).

  • Me says:

    I am in a small department where resources to support grad students can be scarce. I am also from an underrepresented group and have served on award committees for minority only fellowships. It concerns me to know that in order to maximize potential resources, my department will default to putting minority students up for the minority award for students who have 'overcome challenges' and other students get put up for the more prestigious institutional fellowships. I don't want to penalize the candidates but, when on award committees, a part of me wants to punish the departments that put outstanding minority students up for the 'pat on the back' award and not for the more achievement-oriented awards.