My Williamsburg Discrimination Story

Adam’s post about the California Supreme Court’s recent decision, and the resulting brawl in the comments got me thinking about the basis of discrimination. In 1998, while I was a senior at BYU I spent a semester in Williamsburg, Virginia doing research in the archives at the College of William and Mary. The week before my job in Williamsburg was to begin, I drove down from DC, where I had been working over the summer, to find a place to stay. I had three options. One turned out to be unfurnished, which took it off the list. The second option was a house filled with a mix of grad students and college seniors. The ownership structure wasn’t entirely clear, but I think that the house actually belonged to the parents of one of the students. After showing me the room, my putative landlord asked me why I was in Williamsburg. I explained that I was a BYU student doing research in the archives. He got a very serious look on his face, and explained that he had grown up in Spokane, Washington with many Latter-day Saints and found them to be very “un-Christian” and would prefer not to rent to a Mormon.

At the time I was furious. I ended up renting a furnished room in the house of a nice old lady of the hard-core Virginian variety. (You need to be south of the Rappahannock to meet this type today.) However, I also considered looking into the possibility of suing the householder for discrimination. (I was studying for the LSAT at the time in addition to going through old Supreme Court files, so law was on the brain.) I felt this stinging sense of personal hurt, despite the fact that at the end of the day I had no problem finding another place to live and frankly didn’t much care for the house from which I was excluded, which was extremely gamey and had a distinct aroma of pot. I now realize that I was firmly on the horns of the dilemma undergirding anti-discrimination laws. There are, it seems to me, two families of arguments in support of these laws.

One argument is essentially related to anti-trust and says that those in targeted groups are the victims of a cartel of sorts so that they cannot get certain services or else must get the services at a significantly higher cost. Note that under this rationale, the presence of comparable alternatives constitutes a powerful argument against anti-discrimination laws. The second argument for anti-discrimination laws is that there is some evil to the act of discrimination itself, regardless of the availability of comparable alternatives. This evil can be seen in two ways, either (1) as the perpetuation of evil beliefs, e.g. blacks are inferior, Mormons are evil, etc.; or (2) in the harm to one’s dignity that is suffered when one is rejected on the basis of some status. Note that under this rationale the fact that there are lots of other alternatives available doesn’t really undermine the case for anti-discrimination laws.

Upon reflection, I find the first family of arguments more compelling than the second family. Indeed, in 1998 – when I was more doctrinaire in my libertarianism than I am now – I ultimately decided that there was something deeply wrong with my urge to bring the law crashing down on the head of the grad student/landlord. I am less sanctimonious about it today, but I still think that we are probably best off letting those with idiosyncratic prejudices go about their business so long as the prejudice isn’t so pervasive as to distort one’s access to the market. There are harms to one’s dignity involved in being rejected, but on the whole it seems to me we are best off letting people contract – or not contract – with those that they wish.

Understanding this tension at the heart of discrimination law, however, is part of what makes the reactions to the doctor’s case so intense. Note, that one of the reasons one might have anti-discrimination laws is as a way of discouraging evil beliefs. Hence, those subject to sanctions under anti-discrimination laws because of their beliefs are hardly unjustified in believing that the state has in effect stepped beyond its position as a neutral arbiter and affirmatively singled their religious convictions for opprobrium via legal sanctions.

52 comments for “My Williamsburg Discrimination Story

  1. Adam Greenwood
    August 19, 2008 at 5:55 pm

    An excellent post. Not very brawly, alas, but insightful and informative, which is almost, but not quite, as good.

  2. DCL
    August 19, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    Couldn’t the state find that only cartel-like discrimination should be banned, but that banning all of certain kinds of discrimination is the most efficient way of getting to that result?

  3. Abraham
    August 19, 2008 at 6:02 pm

    Those darn “Spokane” Mormons………

  4. August 19, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    Great post. You’ve articulated my feelings on the issue better than I’ve been able to.

  5. Marc Bohn
    August 19, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    I actually think the current law has it about right. Part of the reason discrimination isn’t so pervasive as to distort one’s access to the market is because of laws like the Civil Rights Act and its subsequent amendments. In housing, the balance is struck with the exception to the Fair Housing Act which exempts individual landlords who are not management companies (i.e., do not own more than 3 single family residences).

  6. August 19, 2008 at 6:44 pm

    I find many Mormons to be un-Christian as well, it doesn’t mean I won’t take their money for rent. Who are these people making business decisions based on what religion, sexual orientation, or favorite beverage someone has?

  7. August 19, 2008 at 6:51 pm

    Interesting post. You\’ve approached the issue far more calmly and rationally than most people (including myself) have. I actually side more with the doctor on this one, but as someone from the Deep South, I\’ve also grown up around relics of not-so-bygone segregated years where you had \”white\” businesses and \”black\” businesses. There were comparable businesses available to black people separately, but I believe the government was right to step in and prohibit the denial of services from one race in favor of the other. That being said, this particular case was an elective procedure at a private practice and I sympathize with the doctor\’s plight, but I see how this issue could get out of hand very easily…in both directions.

  8. jeff hoyt
    August 19, 2008 at 7:34 pm

    “Part of the reason discrimination isn’t so pervasive as to distort one’s access to the market is because of laws like the Civil Rights Act and its subsequent amendments”

    I unerstand why one might think this, but I think the real reason why discrimination is not pervasive is because it is generally economically detrimental to the landlord. I think the greater effect of these laws is to drive up costs to everyone for everything.

  9. gst
    August 19, 2008 at 8:18 pm

    I read the title and guessed that it was going to be a story about how you couldn’t get an apartment without wearing a tricorn hat and breeches. What a letdown.

  10. Marc Bohn
    August 19, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    Love it.

  11. August 19, 2008 at 8:58 pm

    There are at least two reasons why rational wealth maximizers might discrimnate, even if they don’t have any prejudice. First, there might be state action or in action that in effect requires discrimination. For example, in the Jim Crow south a white business owner who served blacks might be harassed with impunity because the police wouldn’t intervene to protect him. And then, of course, in many cases racial segregation was legally mandated.

    The second reason has to do with signalling. If racial prejudice, for example, because a way of signally to one’s neighbors that one is a committed member of the local community, unlikely to leave, therefore subject to future sanctions, and accordingly more trustworthy, then one might engage in discrimination in order to convey information about one’s self to one’s neighbors. In effect, you have signalling that not only is wasteful but also has huge externalities.

  12. Jacob F
    August 19, 2008 at 9:20 pm

    I’ve wondered whether I’m evil for renting a house to a mixed-gender group of ASU students, at least one of whom owns a bong the size of a floor lamp. Can I still take the sacrament?

  13. Dan
    August 19, 2008 at 9:55 pm

    Jeff Hoyt,


    I unerstand why one might think this, but I think the real reason why discrimination is not pervasive is because it is generally economically detrimental to the landlord. I think the greater effect of these laws is to drive up costs to everyone for everything.

    It would seem to make sense, but then again, for most of our nation’s history, we’ve discriminated against this or that group without any real effect to the economy. I just can’t see economic factors as the main driving force behind there not being as much discrimination these days.

  14. carmen
    August 19, 2008 at 11:15 pm

    So I\’m going to go a little off topic for this post…I\’m still thinking on the post on race vs. orientation stance and the comments are closed. The best way that I can think of to articulate why members of the church should be taking a stand (and not just the \”God said so\” stance) is this: Do I deny that some people may honestly feel same sex attraction. No. I feel for these people very much and the inner turmoil this must cause in some instances. But I feel that this is one of their specific trials, and we know that God does not give more than we can bear. I would put this in the same category as someone who has a seemingly natural explosive, violent temper. Do I feel for someone who is challenged in that way? Yes. But I also expect them to develop the skills and self control necessary to contain it, live God\’s law, and progress to be a more loving, calm, and Christ-like individual. Do I think that some people have a seemingly natural attraction to children or young adults? Yes. But I (plus this nation\’s law) expect them to deny this urge and live a better life. God is God and His ways are just, and he expects us to reflect on issues and to decide with Him…but I think He expects a little more intelligent and compassionate response than a blind \”God said so…\”.
    Anyhow, a little more on topic, I really rue the decision made in this doctor case. It feels like the government has overstepped its intended reach.

  15. ed
    August 20, 2008 at 12:54 am

    It’s also important to remember that anti-discrimination laws can have unintended consequences.

    For example, if an employer believes that he might be sued if he fires someone from group X, he might find ways to avoid hiring anyone from group X to begin with.

  16. MCQ
    August 20, 2008 at 5:10 am

    Nate, I’m curious about what you actually said to the guy at the time he told you he didn’t want to rent to Mormons. Did you just walk out? Did you discuss it with him? Did you threaten to sue? Did you want to pop him one? Did you make an attempt to prove to him that, in fact, his opinion of Mormons was a little off? I’m really wondering how one would best handle that. I’m sure I would have blown up at the guy, or possibly laughed in his face.

    There is, however, nothing funny about this kind of discrimination. I know of several Mormon grad students who believe very firmly that they were denied entry to certain prestigious instituions of higher learning solely on the basis of their religion. Housing discrimination, in particular, is extremely pernicious and goes far beyond simple freedom of contract as an issue. This is why equal housing laws predate other anti-discrimination laws by decades. The possibility that you may be denied housing in a partular area on the basis of race, nationality or religion could be much more detrimental to you or your group than simply causing you to have a longer commute. On the whole, I think you should have sued the guy, or at least reported him to the fair housing office at the city or state.

  17. MCQ
    August 20, 2008 at 5:14 am

    ed (#15): Not hiring someone on the basis of race or religion would also be a violation of anti-discrimination laws. They don’t just prohibit firing, they prohibit any employment-related action that is discrimnatory.

  18. August 20, 2008 at 7:54 am

    #17 – and yet there’s no law to force me, as an employer, to advertise to the BYU or Notre Dame or Bob Jones alumni groups — if I want to avoid hiring Mormons or Catholics or Evangelicals I can do all kinds of things to avoid hiring them. My employer gets credit with the equal opportunity folks when we go out of our way to reach out to the Society of Women Engineers, and if we could find an Organization of Future White Male Administrative Assistants we’d probably be sending them a recruiting email every day (our EOE efforts are graded entirely on how close we match the local economy; one of the things we’re short on is while male administrative workers.) Discrimination that avoids crass “No Irish Need Apply” or “Whites Only” style signage is shockingly easy to pull off — one of several reasons I think most anti-discrimination laws are ill-conceived.

    I also would argue that relatively open prejudice such as that described here is less of a problem when people are geographically mobile — didn’t Wyoming let women have the vote specifically to attract female settlers?

  19. Bro. Jones
    August 20, 2008 at 9:52 am

    #18 – Geographical mobility is the problem. Suppose in the OP’s situation, that rather than finding a suitable alternative nearby, ALL the potential landlords close to Williamsburg refused to rent to him, and he had to go to another city? Granted, there’s geographical mobility these days in terms of having cars rather than handcarts, but given the cost of living, the cost of fuel, and access to credit, not everyone is equally “mobile.” Suggesting that it’s okay to let idiosyncratic types do their thing provided there are “alternatives” smacks a bit of the old Plessy v. Ferguson “Separate but Equal” thinking to me.

  20. bbell
    August 20, 2008 at 10:01 am


    My father was a finalist in 1969 for a Rhodes scholarship. Per him there is an interview process at least back then that was the final step in the decision making process. He has told me numerous times that the entire interview he had was hostile questions about Mormonism. He says that he walked out knowing he had just been eliminated from consideration based on his religion.

  21. Frank McIntyre
    August 20, 2008 at 10:20 am

    Nate, I bet you’re shocked to know that I agree with you.

    Also, for those interested in how market incentives can break down discrimination– go see Glory Road…

  22. jeff hoyt
    August 20, 2008 at 1:05 pm

    I was told once that I needed to “at least drink beer” if I wished to be successful in a sales poition. Of course I declined and was later fired. Did I even consider filing suit? No. So I think I should have some credibility in saying that antidiscrimination laws are counterproductive and should generally be done away with.

    #13 (Dan) – I disagree that past discrimination has not harmed the economy. Any decision that does not maximize productivity and resource utilization damages the economy to some degree. While quantification is difficult, it should be apparent that the underutilization of black’s cost this country dearly.

    #15 (ed) – You are exactly correct. People make rational decisions, and the government is notoriously poor at perceiving consequences of their actions. One example is the push to require paid maternity leave (for both men and women). Does anyone not see the impact on LDS looking for work if this were to become law. One can say that laws will provide protection against this but I think they are dreaming.

    #18 (Bro. Jones) – I agree with you reference “separate but equal”, but think that this is less of a problem than government intervention to correct. Lest I be accused of desiring a “Jim Crow” society, I believe (strongly) that race relations would be better in this country today had government not intervened to try to force people to change their thinking.

  23. August 20, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    ed: Is is right about the problem of employment effects from anti-discrimination cases. For a variety of reasons people are much more likely to sue if they get fired than if they don’t get hired. Discriminating in hiring and firing are both illegal, but the number of firing suits dwarfs the number of hiring suits. Accordingly, there is a cost associated with employing a protected person if only because their is a risk of litigation associated with firing them. It therefore becomes rational — even in the absence of any prejudice — to discriminate against the protected class if one assumes (correctly) that (1) litigation is not costless and (2) non-meritorious lawsuits can be fired.

    In the Americans With Disabilities Act context the issue is even starker because the law mandates reasonable accomodations which can mean straight out cash expenditures upon employement. It makes discrimination in hiring illegal, of course, but people rarely sue for the job that they didn’t get. There is some pretty good work (for supporters of the act no less) suggesting that it has tended to increase the job security of employed disabled people while making it more difficult for unemployeed disabled people to get a job. You can read these results as either protecting incumbents at the expense of entrants or else protecting the successful at the expense of marginal job applicants. Interestingly, Christine Jolls — the HLS prof from whom I heard these results — supports the ADA on dignitary grounds, even though I think that she believes that it is a wash at best in terms of economic benefits to disabled people.

  24. August 20, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    MCQ: I honestly can’t remember what I said. I was so flumoxed that anyone would actually come out and say such a thing to my face — as opposed to just refusing to rent with some other excuse — that I don’t think that I said anything. FWIW, I don’t think that I had any sort of case against these folks. I think that one of the grad students or his parents owned the home, so they probably didn’t come under the federal fair housing laws, and while I don’t know for certain I would be shocked if Virginia’s anti-discrimination statutes extended to rental of a residence where the land lord was actually living.

  25. jeff hoyt
    August 20, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    #23 Nate – “Interestingly, Christine Jolls — the HLS prof from whom I heard these results — supports the ADA on dignitary grounds, even though I think that she believes that it is a wash at best in terms of economic benefits to disabled people.”

    I agree that her opinion is interesting in that it exemplifies the contention that academics support positions because it makes them feel good, nevermind that the policy is in fact detrimental to the targeted group.

  26. August 20, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    Jeff: I think that is an unfair characterization of Jolls’s argument. She doesn’t support the ADA because “it makes her feel good.” Rather, she supports it because she has made a reasoned judgment that the dignitary affront involved in discrimination is serious enough that it warrants legal opprobrium, even if it has the effect of transfering benefits within the protected group. (Remember Jolls doesn’t argue that the ADA makes disabled people worse off. She argues that it makes some of them better off and some of them worse off.) I ultimately end up weighing the issues differently than Jolls, but her work strikes me as expemplifying some of the best parts of academic discussion, particularlly the willingness to fully understand the costs associated with positions that you endorse.

    It is an example worth emulating rather than ridiculing.

  27. John Buffington
    August 20, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    Years ago, I applied to Medical School at McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario.

    The question came up asking me why I had spent 18 months (told you it was YEARS ago) in France/Belgium. I indicated that I had spent the time as a missionary, and the tone of the discussion completely changed. The questions now focussed on abortion provision, and forced blood transfusions etc etc.

    I walked out knowing that I was NEVER going to become a McMaster Alum!

    Was I angry? Yes, but I was more stunned that the university would allow such (insert favourite insult here) to be involved in the process.

    As luck would have it, I become a financial economist, which has been way better for me and my temperament, and makes me WAY more popular at parties. Frank can almost surely concur.

    What bothered me is not so much that I was discriminated against, but that I had no effective recourse. They were complete (insert favourite insult here) and I could not do much about it.

    On the other hand, hypersensitivity to hurt feelings has led to the situation occuring north of the border in the Human Rights Tribunals which are considering arguments against Mark Steyn, who has said some (in their opinion) hurtful things about Muslims. The plaintiffs are seeking a quasi-judicial solution to hurt feelings. Seems like an overreach to me. We are not talking about denial of human rights or services here, just hurt feelings.

    Sometimes, we just have to suck it up (I did) and get on with life.

    On the topic of discrimination, being Mormon PALES with the challenges I experienced as White Male with an obviously Anglo name trying to get an academic position in the US at a business school. Now THAT was discrimination that really got my goat, but I was powerless to fight. Pretty sure there is no legislation to help me out on this either.

    Life goes on, and you optimize against these (mostly mindless) constraints.

  28. jeff hoyt
    August 20, 2008 at 4:59 pm

    “…she supports it because she has made a reasoned judgment that the dignitary affront…”

    I guess I do not see the difference. In my mind she supports it because she feels good about opposing a “dignitary affront”, regardless of the effects. You used the term “wash at best” which implies a likely negative outcome. In my mind there is no question that the outcome is a net negative.

    I admire the fact that she at least recognizes a potential problem in her position. If only all academics were as introspective.

  29. MCQ
    August 20, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    Sarah: The fact that people can still find ways to violate the law if they want to is no reason to conclude that the law is ill-conceived. By that reasoning, most laws would be labeled ill-conceived.

    Jeff Hoyt, you felt that you were discriminated against and chose not to sue so that somehow makes all anti-discrimination laws counterproductive? I don’t follow. Certainly, despite some adverse economic effects, I think most scholars who study this issue have not reached that conclusion. Your cynicism on this issue is not consistent with my observations as an employment litigator either.

    Nate: The fact that there are far less discrimination suits filed for failure to hire as compared with firing is due to the fact that discriminatory animus for failure to hire is much harder to prove, because the plaintiff usually has far less experience with the company. You are probably right about the resulting effects but even if you are, like your friend Christine, I think that is an insufficient reason to do away with anti-discrimination laws. Those laws are important symbols of our aspirations as a society, even if they have some less-than-perfect effects on the groups they are designed to protect.

  30. jeff hoyt
    August 20, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    #27 – Your story is very believable. My mother (not LDS) was the administrative assistant to the Dean of Admissions at a prominent midwestern medical school. She was candid in telling me their admissions office did not believe devout christians should be admitted as students because they would not have sufficient compassion for homosexuals (a policy she agreed with).

  31. MCQ
    August 20, 2008 at 6:00 pm

    “Pretty sure there is no legislation to help me out on this either.”

    I can’t tell for sure from the facts you give, but I think you might be surprised. I hope you are not equating racial or religious discrimination in hiring or education to “hurt feelings.” There are real economic damages associated with such actions, and telling such disadvantaged persons to “just suck it up and get on with life” is not appropriate or productive.

  32. jeff hoyt
    August 20, 2008 at 7:05 pm

    MCQ – “you felt that you were discriminated against and chose not to sue so that somehow makes all anti-discrimination laws counterproductive?”

    They are not counterproductive because because I chose not to sue. My point was that no one should accuse me of not being sufficiently aware that discrimination occurs. I just chose not to support counterproductive laws by filing suit.

    I disagree with you on the research.

    What you call my cynicism I would call an observation of human nature, which I believe is consistent with an acknowlegment of a need for the Gospel.

  33. MCQ
    August 20, 2008 at 7:42 pm

    Well that’s very observant of you Jeff, but since it doesn’t look like we’re going to get universal acceptance of the gospel right away, maybe you won’t mind if the law steps in in the mean time.

  34. jeff hoyt
    August 20, 2008 at 8:24 pm

    You have it backwards, MCQ. If we had universal acceptance of the Gospel the laws would not cause a problem, but until then I believe government intervention does great harm. The laws create transaction costs in hiring members of protected classes, as well as creating resentment towards people viewed as receiving preferential treatment so human nature kicks in and results in those protected classes not getting a fair chance. I believe race relations would be much better in this country had antidiscrimination laws never been enacted.

  35. MCQ
    August 21, 2008 at 1:24 am

    Why stop there, Jeff? Don’t forget those darn voting rights statutes, they REALLY screwed things up.

  36. Eric Boysen
    August 21, 2008 at 10:49 am

    I find that when I am not wanted that I usually don’t want to be there anyway. Forcing your way in the door rarely puts you in a congenial environment. I do support these laws, but it would take a very egregious situation to try to use one.

  37. Frank McIntyre
    August 21, 2008 at 11:11 am

    MCQ, In 29 you tell Nate that even if the legislation is economically useless, it is good because it is an important symbol of our desires as a society. In 31 you tell jeff that discrimination is important not just because of mere hurt feelings, but because of “real economic damages”.

    Am I missing something? If the legislation is only purportedly dealing with the hurt feelings, not the “real economic damages”, maybe it isn’t worth getting too excited about.

    Put another way, would you support legislation that made it legally required that people be nice to each other, because it is an “important symbol of our aspiration as a society”?

    Is that an effective way to use the law?

  38. jeff hoyt
    August 21, 2008 at 11:25 am

    MCQ – I will presume from #35 that you really have no valid response.

  39. August 21, 2008 at 11:59 am

    For my money the best economic arguments against anti-discrimination laws are based on distributive justice rather than welfarism. The laws clearly give benefits to some people, and for all I know those benefits outweight the costs that they impose on others. I could, for example, subscribe to the Jolls story about disemployment effects for marginal disabled applicants from the ADA and still argue that it is a netwelfare gain if the value confered on the protected incumbents is greater than the costs incured by other parties. The distributional argue would be that even if the ADA increases welfare it does so at the expense of the most vulnerable members of the target population, which is unjust.

    MCQ: I think that you are probably right that the difficulties of proof account for most of the disparities in litigation rates. There is, however, a lot of evidence for what behavioral economists call an endowment effect. A mathematicallly rational maximizer would be indifferent between a lost opprotunity to make $1000 at no cost and a tax of $1000 on current wealth. It seems to be pretty clear, however, that this is not how human beings are hard-wired to think. Rather, the person who loses $1000 out of current wealth gets a lot more upset than the person who loses an opprotunity for $1000 of new wealth. (Furthermore, my understanding, is that this effect cannot be explained by diminishing marginal utility for money. There really is something about havving and losing that we treat as worse than failing to get.)

  40. John Buffington
    August 21, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    re #31

    From a Canadian posting this week for a finance professor job

    This is an international search, open to candidates of all nationalities. However, in accordance with Canadian Immigration requirements, priority will be given to Canadian citizens and permanent residents. Queen’s University is committed to employment equity and diversity in the workplace and welcomes applications from women, visible minorities, aboriginal people, persons with disabilities, and persons of any sexual orientation or gender identity.

    From a US posting this week for a finance professor job

    Brandeis University is an equal opportunity employer committed to building a culturally diverse intellectual community and strongly encourages applications from women and minorities.

    Without even reading between the lines, these both say the same thing: White guys need not apply. The hiring commitees know it, and when they get CV’s from guys that obviously fit this bill (such as people named John Buffington), they will place them (with a higher probability) in the “do not interview” pile than people who are either minorities or women. I have experienced this first hand.

    No, I do not equate discrimination in hiring with hurt feelings (fwiw, do folks generally consider the above job postings to be discriminatory or are they legitimate goals of balancing the mix of the faculty which happens to hurt the historically dominant group?)

    What I am saying is that I think it is a bit of a stretch for people with hurt feelings to try and obtain “justice”. Additionally, I think that in many cases of discrimination, there is not a lot you can do, and you move on. For example, no law will help me fight the (possible) discrimination that universities engage in against white men. Nate points our that in such efforts, there are winners and losers. Perhaps this is necessary; I just wish it had been clearer at the outset, as I might have pursued alternate studies. I am not sure that I am a vulnerable member of society, but these approaches sure seem to approach being “unjust”.

    I am not sure I can show any “real economic damage” done to me. We can talk about being dissed for being LDS in some circumstances (med school applications, housing applications, etc), but most such items are annoyances rather than easily quantifiable damages, so we shake our heads, and continue on. Life isn’t always fair.

  41. anon for this
    August 21, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    John, allow me to share my perspective as a woman who has spent the last year on the academic job market in a field in which women are grossly underrepresented.

    I have been asked illegal questions in interviews about whether I am married, how long I have been married, even attempts at extracting information about my fertility(!). I have interacted with departments that have known histories of faculty members saying things like, for example, women’s brains are not physically capable of excelling in this field. These are my personal experiences in one year. If I were to start telling stories from my network of female contacts in the field, we could be here all day and it would get much worse. That being said, I know many women, even in my field, who to seem miraculously escape these things. But the lottery nature of it doesn’t invalidate the very real experiences of those who do lose the lottery.

    When I browse job listings, I look for paragraphs of the kind you quote, because I hope that at those places I will be less likely to suffer these sorts of indignities. Fact is, minorities like myself (in this context) suffer actual harm that too often leads to simply abandoning the field altogether, and measures such as including those paragraphs are the kinds of things that make our careers possible at all. Hope that helps give you some perspective for the next time you encounter one of those.

  42. Frank McIntyre
    August 21, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    I’m pretty sure people asked me how long I was married and about my kids when I was on the job market. It did me no harm. I like talking about my family. It was the poor interviewer who had to suffer through pictures of my children.

    Apparently you feel very differently.

  43. August 21, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    Frank, there are reasons that women might feel differently about being asked about family. Not to put too fine a point on it, the university (and the department) want to know if they prospective hire is going to be spending time on family instead of on research. They want to know if they are hiring someone who is about to take maternity leave. If I understand the law (no better than even odds on this), this is not something that employers can take into account when making a hire. But of course they want to. Thus, the questions. And thus the worry for women who get asked this kind of question.

  44. Robert Medford
    August 21, 2008 at 4:24 pm

    Please forgive the following style if it is not conducive to this discussion or site.

    I do not minimize the hurt feelings or repercussions of “unjust actions” sanctioned upon a person or group. I also do believe that governments are there to protect. But there “is” IMO something to be said about allowing oneself to be unjustly treated, without fighting it till you die, in lieu of the fact that this life is a test of character, and injustices “will” happen in “this” world, allowing for an anticipated reward for such investments in the future. Since we believe that “there are divers ways and means [whereby we may commit [injustice]], even so many that I cannot number them”, reason tell us that innumerable laws can be (and I would add “seem to be”) passed, protecting “rights” and mandating “fair or preferential treatment”. I do believe this. Innumerable laws. Where does it all stop?

    IMO in the beginning of this country (US), a “model” lawyer was a learned man who felt passionately about a justice system based on ethics as understood through an ethical religious foundation; and this at the time when it might only take several weeks for such to read all of the “law” text to be referenced in English (American), and possibly just as much as in English (European). Now (presently), I believe it a fair statement to say that it is impossible for one to read all of the law texts (that could be pertinent to any given case) in our country (US) in a lifetime, and still give time for using such laws and judgments to “help” anyone.
    Personally, I would rather have the Founding Father’s lawyers with their unscripted reason based on ethics and ethical religion — and they wouldn’t even have to cite the “Bible” or “God” in their arguments — than the lawyers of today and their cited law texts and past judgments.

    I have two points. First: The vast majority of our time is spent unwisely (mine especially, however I aspire to be better). Allow me to say that a child with a good mother (and father) has better understanding of (what I consider) true “law” and what “ought to be”, than most of us adults in the world. Much of that has to do with “what we lose”, more than who we were born as, I believe.

    Second (this really should be First, and this is what tips the balance for me): Citing four hopefully recognizable and authoritative texts:
    1: “[We have heard … said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’: But I say unto you, … resist not evil: but whoever will smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue you by the law, and take away your coat, let him have your cloke also. And whosoever will compel you to go a mile, go with him another. Give to him that asks of you, and from him that would borrow of you turn not you away.
    We have heard … said, ‘Love your neighbor, and hate your enemy’. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father in heaven: for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if we love them that love us, what reward have we? don’t even the public officials and tax collectors do the same? And if we salute our brethren only, what do we more than others? don’t even the public officials and tax collectors do so?
    Let us therefore be perfect, even as our Father in heaven is perfect.]” (slightly simplified and paraphrased)
    2: “[brethren, I would exhort you to have patience, and that ye bear with all manner of afflictions; that ye do not revile against those who do cast you out because of your exceeding poverty, lest ye become [unwise investors] like unto them;
    3: “Why do [we] not rather take wrong? why do [we] not rather suffer [ourselves] to be defrauded?
    4: “Some were lifted up in pride, and others were exceedingly humble; some did return railing for railing, while others would receive railing and persecution and all manner of afflictions, and would not turn and revile again, but were humble and penitent before God.”

    Third (I promised two, sorry): All our laws are ultimately based on belief, (i.e.. belief in what is “right”, “just”) For example, it might easily be conceived that one who does not believe in a God (much less his “justice”) might more easily believe that there is not (in the grand scheme of things) anything wrong with defrauding his neighbor, particularly when the neighbor has and will have no knowledge of the fraud. Yet the majority of us likely believe that it is wrong to defraud. Indeed, we have laws making such acts illegal. Therefore again, we can “write laws, and clarify laws with amendments, and revoke laws with another law, and sue by the law, and obtain a new never-before-been-documented judgment” virtually forever. Where does it all stop? I believe (this idea is not original, of course) that it has to stop with each one of us, individually; and by way of that example and mutual treatment, to those whom our spheres of influence touch.

  45. Frank McIntyre
    August 21, 2008 at 4:35 pm


    Sure, but the question itself is not innately offensive or problematic. People ask people all the time if they are married. It isn’t normally considered an offensive thing to ask. Rather people are concerned that it might be used by employers who are trying to know if you are a good match. But there is nothing innately offensive about wanting to know if somone is a good match. Setting aside questions of legality, the whole point of a job interview is to know if you are a good match. Thus, questions pertinent to that are going to be relevant. I can understand people not wanting to reveal the truth, because it reveals to the employer that they aren’t, in fact, likely to be a good match. But in those cases I have trouble siding with the person trying to pull a fast one…

    If it is a double academic search for you and spouse, actually, you should probably tell your interviewee immediately so they can try to coordinate across departments. That is, if you think you both have a shot at the same school.

    Now, if we were in a society where many employers in a field are anxious to refuse to hire a woman or man based on them being married (or not), one might start to worry. But I don’t know of any evidence that that is the case in the U.S. generally. Especially since market effects of discrimination are probably more based on the prejudice of the _marginal_ agent, not the average.

  46. Robert Medford
    August 21, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    and what’s a “tricorn hat and breeches”? I’m not dumb, just an idiot.

  47. MCQ
    August 21, 2008 at 7:28 pm

    Frank, please. A woman who is trying to be free from gender discrimination based on whether she has or is likely to have children is not trying to “pull a fast one.” Asking these questions of a woman is very different from asking them of a man and they are not legitimate questions in the workplace, nor do their answers reveal information that should be legitimately taken into account in an emplyment decision. Period.

    As for your earlier questions (#37) the apparent discrepancy is explained by the word “if.” I do not personally believe that these laws are meant to address hurt feelings. I think they are much more important than that. I think most people commenting here have no idea what real discrimination is like, thus the cavalier attitudes about these laws. I think these laws have provided a real tangible benefit to people who were never allowed a chance at a decent job in the past. My comment was meant to suggest that, even if there were some economic costs associated with them (and there undeniably are) they would still be beneficial because they represent us as a society aspiring to simply do the right thing, i.e., provide a workplace free from employment decisions based on things like race, nationality and gender and closer to the ideal, where merit is what matters, rather than whether you look like you will “get along” with those who are already in the workplace.

    Just so you know, words like “a good fit” have been used for generations as a discriminatory tool, to exclude from the workplace people who we think are different from us. That is what we are trying to avoid. I guess such ideas are of no value to some. I beg to differ.

  48. MCQ
    August 21, 2008 at 7:34 pm

    Jeff, no, it’s just that I find your last sentence so silly that I think further serious discussion with you would be pointless.

    When did this site become such a bastion of curmudgeonly discrimination apologists?

  49. Frank McIntyre
    August 21, 2008 at 10:22 pm

    “nor do their answers reveal information that should be legitimately taken into account in an emplyment decision. Period.”

    As best I can tell, the rhetorical use of ending one’s comment with “Period”. usually means that the preceding argument is a first principle, rather than something deduced from first principles. While I find it odd to base first principles on things like employment discrimination rather than, for example, making the most people happy or gaining eternal life, there usually isn’t any point in arguing first principles.

    “When did this site become such a bastion of curmudgeonly discrimination apologists? ”

    Since you began to perceive it as such.

  50. Steve Evans
    August 21, 2008 at 11:31 pm

    Robert, it’s ironic that you don’t know what a tricorn hat and breeches are, since you apparently are still living in Colonial times in your mind; your description of the lawyering profession, both of then and now, is highly inaccurate.

  51. Robert Medford
    August 22, 2008 at 2:17 am

    Thanks. I was just allowing myself to be vulnerable. Also, I did not say that “the modern lawyering profession is evil, and this is why ….” I was extolling the virtues of less “written law” and more “intuitive reasoning”, based on good ole (ethically) religious principles. Both are found — though the search might appear to take longer — in modern times. I apologize for not clarifying.

  52. jeff hoyt
    August 22, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    “Jeff, no, it’s just that I find your last sentence so silly that I think further serious discussion with you would be pointless.”

    I suspect you are correct. As one of us calls arguments “silly” and resorts to ad hominems, “serious discussion” would be a misnomer.

Comments are closed.