A sex point or two for male nurses

In case you found this via a search engine, let me offer the spoiler right away: This isn’t a blog entry with sex pointers for male nurses and it’s not a discussion about giving points for sex, either. Sorry, folks.

Instead, it’s a blog entry about an affirmative action measure in Norwegian universities and colleges whereby extra points can be given to applicants on the basis of their sex alone.

Sex points for engineers and veterinarians
Admission to some programs is based on a point system, reflecting grades from secondary school, subjects from secondary school, age, work experience, and other factors the government deems worthy of reward.

Already today, the law allows for one or two extra points to be awarded to the under-represented sex in study programs where there is a significant imbalance. And these are in use. For example, the admissions process for several engineering programs gives extra points to women, while extra points in veterinary sciences go to men.

Sex points in the news
Sex points have been in the news, as both the University of Oslo and the national Gender Balance in Research committee have recently addressed the issue. At UoO, they were focused on psychology and orthodontics. The gender balance committee was concerned about nursing. UoO decided against using sex points, suggesting that focused recruiting was important, but that sex points should not be used.

The gender balance committee took a different position. When men apply to nursing programs, they should be given extra points — just because they’re men. More generally, the committee proposes that sex points should be used to facilitate improvement in programs where one gender constitutes fewer than 30% of the students, regardless of whether it is men or women. Their fundamental perspective comes through in the following quote.

Gender balance will improve the quality of the educational programs and contribute positively to the further development of the relevant fields; the development and qualifications of all students are thereby strengthened.

Arguing for sex points
The committee lists five arguments that it considered; the first three argue for sex points, while the last two argue against them.

  1. The argument from quality: Gender balance in the student population positively affects educational quality. If both sexes have an opportunity to influence educational programs, the quality of the content of the programs is strengthened.
  2. The argument from role models: Gender balance in the student cohorts positively affects future recruitment and success rates for both young men and women.
  3. The argument from societal benefit: From a broader societal perspective, gender balanced student cohorts is important. Just as women should make their mark on the development of technology, men should make their mark in psychology and nursing. Cohorts should in principle reflect the composition of the society from which they are drawn.
  4. The argument from fairness: Sex points are unfair because applicants with worse grades are admitted over those with better grades.
  5. The argument from meritocracy: Higher education and research are meritocratically oriented. That is, the most meritorious — those with the best grades — should win.

Sex point skepticism
I have no information about the committee’s deliberations but offer my own comments on these arguments here, as a contribution to the debate.

The connection between quality and equality is crucial for motivating further gender equality work, and from that perspective, the argument from quality is important. However, the claims the committee makes need a stronger research foundation to carry the day. On what basis can one claim that gender balance in a cohort improves educational quality?

It seems natural to ask how this claim relates to research on single sex schools or classrooms. The research I’m aware of on single sex classrooms is indecisive, as discussed in a recent debate, although a new study from the University of Pennsylvania concludes that there are significant benefits to segregation.

The arguments from role models and societal benefits are sound. Recruitment of future groups of students surely is affected by the appearance of the current group, and it’s not difficult to convince oneself that patients could have any number of reasons for wanting a male psychologist or nurse, such that reflection of the composition of society in cohorts of students in such fields is important.

Do sex points compromise quality?
The lone argument against sex points — I conflate the arguments from fairness and meritocracy because I don’t understand how they differ — suggests that sex points lead to a compromise of quality. This raises a tricky issue. Do points for girls and boys compromise quality in the same way?

In Norway, girls as a group have higher high school grades than boys in every subject except physical education. Getting more girls into engineering could therefore raise the quality of the cohort.

If increasing the number of girls increases the quality of a student cohort, then increasing the number of boys may lower it — again, on the assumption that high school grades indicate quality.

There are two possible responses to this if one nonetheless wants to advocate the use of sex points. One response is that the arguments about role models and societal benefits are so strong that they justify risking a loss of quality.

The other response is that high school grades are not an appropriate measure of quality. Elaborating briefly, one would have to claim that the structure of the public school system favors girls and in that sense constitutes a structural barrier for boys getting better grades. Using quotas to counteract structural impediments works, as I point out in If you need quality, you need affirmative action. One recent article developing this second response is The war against boys.

The sex point debate
Several issues require engagement here. Are grades the right measure of quality? If so, are you willing to accept lower quality psychologists and nurses in order to get gender balance? If not, what is?

Perhaps the most focused question that requires an answer is whether or not sex points actually make a difference. Are boys not choosing nursing because they don’t have the grades to get in, or is it something else that stops them? Are girls not choosing engineering because they don’t think they can tackle it, or are they perhaps just not interested in the subject the way it’s traditionally taught?

Changing the culture of a field of study in ways that might attract more diverse cohorts of students surely requires much more than affirmative action. I think we agree on that. The remaining question is whether affirmative action makes a difference at all.

Or, to put it another way, would a sex point or two get more guys into nursing? What do you think?

 

Photo: WorkingNurse

About Curt Rice

My interest in leadership development at universities affects most of what I do, whether it’s working on gender balance issues, developing policies about Open Access, promoting research-based education or just about anything else. I'm a professor at the University of Tromsø, where I've spent the last decade serving first as the head of a Center of Excellence (2002-2008) and then as the Vice President for Research & Development (prorektor for forskning og utvikling) (2009-2013). I'm currently a Fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study.

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