Phi Beta Cons

The Parable of the Lifeguard

Suppose you are a lifeguard, and you are presented with studies showing that boys are more likely to drown than girls, probably because they engage in riskier behavior. Now, how does this affect the job you do as a lifeguard?
Well, I hope that one thing you do not do is shrug if you see a girl drowning. You also should not try to rescue boys who are not drowning.
In fact, if this datum doesn’t help you spot drowning people, and it probably doesn’t, then it won’t affect the way you do your job as lifeguard at all. You look for people flailing and screaming, and knowing that most of them will be boys is really irrelevant to you.
Would it prompt you to support “Safety First” swim programs for boys only? Well, so long as there is some percentage of girls who would benefit from such programs, it’s not clear why you would want to exclude girls from them. Maybe the “Safety First” videos you show in the programs would be more likely to depict boys doing typically boy-things, but that’s about it.
And, of course, if further studies showed that it’s not so much sex that matters, but some other factor, then you would care even less about gender, and would be even less supportive of a program for boys and boys alone. For example, if there were some way instead to target risk-seekers for the program — thereby excluding cautious boys (and girls), and including risk-seeking girls (and boys) — then you would be all for it.
Anyway, I hope the applicability of this little parable to concerns over the “underrepresentation” of this or that group will be obvious.
We often hear, for example, that to avoid a future national shortage of engineers or whatever, we need programs to ensure that more of this or that group (typically women or this or that racial or ethnic minority) choose to pursue a given career. Here’s just one example, an article last month from Inside Higher Ed, involving the need for more Latinos in science and technology “to help ensure that [the United States] has skilled workers for the information age.”
Now, assuming for the sake of argument that there are individuals out there who would be good engineers but for some reason don’t pursue this path — because for some reason the thought does not occur to them, say, or because they cannot afford it — then we might analogize them to someone in my parable who is drowning. A disproportionate number of them may indeed be members of this or that group compared to the number who are white males. Still, if there are white males out there who would be good engineers, too, but would likewise not pursue this path because of, say, a lack of resources — well, shouldn’t we be concerned about them, too? Indeed, wouldn’t we want to encourage such a white male to be an engineer at least as much as someone who, although in the underrepresented group, is not as likely to be a good engineer?
Put the shoe on the other foot. Even if it were the case that there are more white males who would benefit from outreach than those in other groups — and, in absolute numbers, this may still be the case — would anyone argue that members of other groups should be excluded from outreach efforts?
In your outreach to promising-but-not-yet-reached students, you would of course want to be alert to common reasons why students might decide not to become engineers (other than the fact that, say, they cannot add). And it is just barely plausible that some of those reasons may have something to do with membership in a particular ethnic or gender group (“You mean they allow girls to be engineers now? Wow!”). But most will not (“You mean I’m eligible for a scholarship for promising engineers? Wow!”).
In sum, whether we want to save someone from a missed opportunity for the student’s sake or the country’s or both, the relevance of race, ethnicity, and sex is limited at best. A missed career opportunity is a shame for anyone, and if the country faces a shortfall in profession X, then we shouldn’t care about the color or plumbing of those filling the breach.
Postscript: John Rosenberg (of the indispensable blog) points out that the PC position, on the other hand, is for the lifeguard to save only boys from drowning, and to hire only male lifeguards — on the theory that they better understand boys and can serve as better (safety) role models.


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