Tuesday, June 9, 2015

So Maybe I Am (Partly) An Affirmative Action Admit

The day I got into MIT, I listened to the boys in my high school physics class whisper that girls had gotten in just because they were girls. Half the female undergrads at MIT have heard such comments, in part because female applicants to MIT are accepted at a much higher rate than male applicants. The explanation given by the MIT admissions office is that girls don’t apply unless they’re especially well-qualified, because MIT is a school that excels in stereotypically male areas.

Though I ended up turning down MIT for Stanford, still I wondered if my gender had helped me get in. My high school class elected me “nerdiest girl”; my application highlighted my interests in male-dominated areas like math, physics, and artificial intelligence. As a nerdy girl, I was an outlier; as a nerdy boy, I would’ve been a stereotype. Two of my acceptance letters commented on the fact that I played chess, a male-dominated game.

So I was excited when I learned that Stanford was required to provide the comments admissions officers had made on applications. When I tried to obtain these comments, I discovered that Stanford does pretty much everything it can to prevent you from getting them [1]. You get an email asking you to “consider the administrative and logistical burden” and whether your life will “be better for having reviewed them”. They will not send you the records via email; when I showed up in person, an employee told me I would not be allowed to use a phone or computer to take notes.

“Can I just have a copy to take home?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “You have twenty minutes.” He started a timer, and I began copying out the comments word for word.

My application was reviewed by two people. It is clear my gender mattered to the first reviewer, who referred to me using terms that emphasized that I was female and discussed my essay about playing chess on Chicago’s South Side with a bunch of older black men. “I can just visualize this young white woman talkin’ trash and kickin’ butt in the South Side chess joint,” the reviewer wrote. Would the image have been as charming had I been male?

Then I emailed every other college I applied to to request my admissions records, because that is a totally normal thing to do. They all told me, politely, to go away; probably the “Stanford” in my email address didn’t help.

Based on the comments on my admissions letters and my application, I conclude that my gender may have helped me get in. A non-rigorous survey of my Facebook friends revealed that I am not the only female scientist who wonders about this. About half of the female scientists who answered said they thought it was possible they had earned an opportunity in part because of their gender. (Some fiercely rejected the idea -- “I topped my university because I am smart and worked hard and not because I am a girl!” -- while some took a more moderate position -- “I think it doesn't hurt to be female when applying to places... In general, I try to work hard enough so that my ability/merit is at the level where it's so clear they should accept/hire me that gender isn't even a question.”)

How much does the possibility that my gender helped bother me? Not much, for three reasons.

  1. Most of me believes that I would’ve gotten in had I been male, that I am not just good at math “for a girl”. I did better on most college math tests than most of the the guys in the class. I also took one math class under the psuedonym “Andrew Chang” and the gender switch didn’t make much difference. (If anything, incidentally, graders in math classes are biased against girls).
  2. Even if I wouldn’t have gotten into the same schools, I’m okay with schools giving preference to girls in male-dominated fields. Colleges should admit people based on their potential, not just their current position. And a high school girl in the male-dominated fields faces so many handicaps a boy does not -- social pressure to leave, stereotype threat, bias -- that if she nonetheless achieves the same score on a math test, that seems like evidence that she has more potential. (Similarly, we’re more impressed by the kid who manages to teach himself integrals out of a textbook than the kid who goes to a school where everyone takes BC Calculus.) I also believe that a gender-balanced college environment is a better one, both because of the sexism which can flourish in male-dominated environments and because men and women have reliably different views on certain issues, making gender balance in academic discussions important. (More on this here [2].)
  3. But let’s say you don’t buy any of this and think I was unfairly admitted to college. Honestly, I still don’t really care because in terms of things I’ve been unfairly given, I’ve got way bigger problems. My graduate education is funded by a) a guy who’s literally getting feces thrown on his effigy b) the US military and c) an organization with a strong history of supporting the nuclear arms race. I am constantly forgetting my keys and being let into buildings anyway because I am white and am carrying a nice laptop, and let’s not even talk about where the laptop came from. In contrast, the people harmed by an affirmative action preference towards me are men who are better than I am at computer science. I’ve met a few of those guys. They’re doing okay.

You might say this is a non sequitur because the presence of a larger injustice does not mean we should ignore a smaller one. I agree that it is important to consider how much affirmative action we really want, and to study, for example, whether or not female scientists have an advantage in applying for jobs. But in terms of injustices that I personally contribute to, I have bigger things to worry about. And if you are one of the dozens of guys from my high school who is annually rejected from MIT: before making nasty comments about how unjust the system is, you might consider how many injustices have already gone your way. 

[1] This is not the first time I have found college officials reluctant to provide information on admissions processes. While touring computer science graduate programs, I spoke with one dean who told me his department had changed their admissions criteria to increase the fraction of women admitted to the program. Without thinking, I asked, “So am I statistically dumber than my male peers?” I have no idea why I said that, but he hastily backtracked and said, no, it wasn’t me he was talking about, it was the undergraduates. (In any case, “dumber” was an inflammatory and incorrect word to use; he had been talking about correcting for women’s lack of experience coding.)

[2] I am troubled by the sexism that often seems to take root in male-dominated environments like fraternities, tech companies, venture capital firms, and gaming communities; women who work in male-dominated environments also often report feeling isolated, which makes them more likely to leave. Gender balance in academic discussions is also important because, while gender gaps for most traits are small, men and women have reliably different views in some areas -- political orientation, sex discrimination, sexual assault. Even within the supposedly objective academic research world, it is clear that a researcher’s gender influences what they choose to focus on. It is no coincidence that many of the high-impact papers studying gender -- on bias in orchestral auditions, gender gaps in desire to compete, and gender inequality in deliberative participation -- have female authors, or that gender studies departments tend to be mostly female. Would medical experiments have been performed only on male lab animals (controlling for the menstrual cycle is a pain) had more of the experimenters been female?

pearson pearson pearson


  1. Do you have a strong opinion about women-only colleges? This sounds like a leading question, but I promise that it isn't. I honestly haven't made up my mind about whether having colleges that accept only women is helpful or harmful, and I'd be curious to hear your opinion if you have one.

    1. I don't know enough about women-only colleges to have a strong opinion. The anecdotal reports I get from speaking to women who attended them are positive, though.

  2. I have no substantive comment on the content here directly. All I have to contribute is: I'm an Epidemiology PhD student focusing on social and environmental justice issues, particularly around race and class, with a soft spot for local public health departments and social movements. And:

    I. Love. Your. Blog.

    Thanks for doing what you do, and sharing it sometimes. Really appreciate it and get a lot out of it. The links are rockin'.

  3. The blog you wrote contains very important information which is very useful for us. I have read this blog full and all information given in it is correct, so I want to thank you.
    Do you want a second opinion on the advice that your son/daughter’s college counselors are providing? Then contact IvyZen, the Best College Consultants that offer a comprehensive plan for how to present the most effective college application.