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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