Affirmative Action

… a core concept in Socioeconomic and Political Context and Atlas105.

Concept description

Merriam-Webster defines affirmative action as “an active effort to improve the employment or educational opportunities of members of minority groups and women [and also] a similar effort to promote the rights or progress of other disadvantaged persons.”

Wikipedia notes that affirmative action is known as employment equity in Canada, reservation in India and Nepal, and positive discrimination in the UK. It goes on to say that:

“[Affirmative action] is the policy of favoring members of a disadvantaged group who suffer or have suffered from discrimination within a culture. Often, these people are disadvantaged for historical reasons, such as oppression or slavery. Historically and internationally, support for affirmative action has sought to achieve goals such as bridging inequalities in employment and pay, increasing access to education, promoting diversity, and redressing apparent past wrongs, harms, or hindrances. The nature of affirmative action policies varies from region to region. Some countries, such as India, use a quota system, whereby a certain percentage of government jobs, political positions, and school vacancies must be reserved for members of a certain group. In some other regions where quotas are not used, minority group members are given preference or special consideration in selection processes.”

Example – hiring new faculty in the Department of Medicine, University of Toronto

The Department of Medicine (see is the largest unit in Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto, and is “one of the largest in North America, with 800 full-time faculty members, 1,000 postgraduate trainees, and 19 sub-specialty divisions located across six fully-affiliated hospitals, four community-affiliated hospitals and more than a dozen additional clinical practice sites.”

Gender Equity Guidelines for Department of Medicine Search Committees

(see, accessed 27 December 2016)

  • to ensure the search processes for the DoM are equitable
  • to achieve 50% female* faculty in the DOM in the next five years

*The Department of Medicine interprets the word “female” as fully inclusive of all self-identified trans and cis women.

  • to achieve 50% female faculty in DoM leadership positions in seven years
  • A diverse faculty benefits the department, the University, our learners, and our patients
  • Individuals have unconscious bias
    • An unconscious bias is an implicit attitude, stereotype, motivation or assumption that can occur without one’s knowledge, control or intention. Unconscious bias affects all types of people and can be found in men and women. Examples of unconscious bias include gender bias, racial bias, and ageism.
    • Unconscious biases are important to consider in instances when judgements are made about quality and competence, judgements that are routinely made by search committees.
    • Unconscious gender bias is the differential treatment of men and women, the impact of which may be positive, negative or neutral.
    • The work, ideas and findings from women or minorities may be undervalued or they may be unfairly attributed to a research director or collaborators despite contrary evidence in publications or letters of evidence. [1-5]
    • Assumptions about possible family responsibilities and their effect on the candidate’s career may negatively influence evaluation of a candidate’s merit, despite evidence of productivity. [6]
    • Evaluators who were distracted by other tasks and under time pressure gave women lower ratings than men for the same written evaluation of job performance indicating that evaluators are more likely to rely on underlying assumptions and biases when they do not give sufficient time and attention to their evaluations. [7]
  • Institutions reproduce themselves
    • The ways in which institutions are organized and governed transmit their institutional norms from generation to generation, and individuals within those institutions are socialized to expect things to be a certain way. [8]
    • This phenomenon maintains the power and advantages of groups that have traditionally held those advantages and makes it harder for those from groups that have traditionally been less powerful to be successful and become leaders. [9]
    • The identification of this phenomenon of cultural reproduction, including pointing out assumptions that advantage or disadvantage certain groups, helps to disrupt the cycle, thereby enabling positive change. [10]
  • Equity efforts will benefit recruitment and retention
Approach to mitigating gender bias in search committees
Establish Search Committee
Advertise the Position
  • Avoid gender-specific language in the job advertisement
  • Broaden description of qualifications to enable recruitment from a wider pool
  • Use broad, informal networks to advertise the position
  • Aim for at least 25% women applicants; if this proportion is achieved, women are more likely to be considered qualified for a position
  • Include a statement about the University’s promotion of diversity and equity
Standardise the Interview and Candidate Selection Process
  • Confirm confidentiality of all discussions
  • Establish agreement on credentials/qualifications for position in advance of interviews
  • Use standardised questions and structured interviews
  • Do not require letters of reference until later in the recruitment process
    • Raise awareness that letters of reference may reflect unconscious bias (see appendix for examples)
  • Do not penalize candidates for ‘CV gaps’ that may coincide with parental/family leaves
  • Compare responses to the interview questions horizontally, across candidates, question by question
  • Ensure sufficient time is available to discuss each applicant
  • Use agreed upon evaluation criteria (see appendix for example)
Monitor the process
  • Document the process for each search and provide documentation to the DoM
  • Review the search process regularly including decisions made; the DoM will be responsible for this with the division directors
  • Establish hiring goals/targets for the division/department and assess if these are being met
Atlas topic, subject, and course

Gender Inequality (core topic) in Socioeconomic and Political Context and Atlas105.


Merriam-Webster, affirmative action, at, accessed 27 December 2016.

Wikipedia, Affirmative action, at, accessed 27 December 2016.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 13 March 2017.

Image: Blogging by Apoorva, at, accessed 27 December 2016.