The Diversity Catch-22


This post originally appeared on School of Doubt. It was written by Dan.

Applying for academic jobs is no small task, as many of you know, and for those of us on the market the process tends to come with a heaping helping of stress, anxiety, self-doubt, and frustration. In fact, the combination of vague instructions, huge amounts of required materials, and rather grim employment statistics for PhDs can actually conspire to make you suspicious of your own optimism.

With so much on the line, and so much competition from highly qualified peers, there is considerable pressure to make sure that every facet of your application is just perfect: CV polished and beautifully typeset, cover letters and teaching statements carefully tailored to each department and the school’s educational philosophy, samples of scholarly writing carefully selected to appeal to the search committee and potential colleagues, references carefully chosen to present a complete picture of your abilities as a teacher and a scholar.

And finally, after all these things are finished, proofed, polished, and uploaded to the application website, you encounter the following seemingly innocuous question at the end of the online form, just after the (optional) selection of race identification:

“X University is an equal opportunity employer and we are firmly committed to promoting diversity on campus. Please describe any ways in which you would contribute to campus diversity.”

“Well how nice,” you think, “that they are taking this mission seriously.” But then, as your fingers hover slightly unsteadily over the keys, another thought strikes that sends your stomach through the floor.

“Or are they?”

You have no way of knowing if the committee truly is as committed to promoting diversity as the university’s HR department claims they are supposed to be. Further, what kinds of diversity are they actually interested in promoting? They have, after all, already asked about ethnic background (which, for visible minorities at least, will eventually become evident either way), so what do they want to know? Sexual orientation? Gender identity? Religious beliefs? Disabilities?

You might start to think the whole question is just a clever ploy to get you to reveal information that might otherwise be illegal for them to ask (not that they don’t often do it anyway). You quickly begin to imagine some of the darker possibilities that might result from divulging this kind of information at such an early stage:

What if a committee member’s bias, conscious or not, leads them to quietly drop your CV in the “reject” pile?

What if your particular minority is already well-represented in your field? Or even in the department? Could your status actually work against you?

What if you divulge a disability, and committee members (unjustly) fear they will have to take on extra work in the department or spend money on accommodations? Or what if they are uncomfortable with the fact you must take certain kinds of medication to function?

What if the fear of a discrimination lawsuit in the event you are denied tenure leads them not to hire you in the first place?

But in a way the most troubling questions of all can be: what if it does make the difference in getting the job? Am I okay with never knowing if I would have gotten the job without filling in that box? Am I okay with commodifying my minority status in the hope it will give me a competitive edge? At the same time, what if not putting it down causes me to benefit unfairly from privilege? Am I okay with the possibility of edging out another candidate due to institutional bias?

The answers to these, of course, are very personal and context-dependent. They require careful consideration not only of one’s field and potential employer, but also of one’s personal history and location along the various axes of oppression. And it’s only made harder by the knowledge that so many of your peers have, like you, worked very hard for a very long time to get to where they are.

To be honest, I still haven’t decided what to do on my own application, and I’ve been thinking about it for a long time now. The bright side, I suppose, is that once Friday rolls around I’ll have no choice.

Featured image: Participants in the 2013 OregonDOT Diversity Conference. Courtesy of the Oregon Dept of Transportation.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest


  1. They can’t legally ask you to divulge your own status. So don’t. Talk about the practical steps you take in your daily life to make spaces more inclusive *for other*s. That’s “contributing to campus diversity”.

Leave a Comment

This div height required for enabling the sticky sidebar