Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Affirmative Action for Dead People

Someone wrote a letter of complaint to The New York Times, noting that there were typically about 8 times as many obituaries for men as for women.

The Times' obituaries editor responded that the newspaper only publishes obituaries for people whose former existence was of national or international interest. Most obituaries today are for people born in the 1920's and 1930's, when most important jobs were done by men. Ergo, most of the noteworthy people dying are men. The Times cannot right this historic wrong by publishing more obituaries for women and non-white men because there are fewer recently deceased women and minorities who did things of national or international interest. The number of obituaries for women is about 10-20%.

Apparently, there aren't enough qualified women dying.

The "public editor" (ombudsman) for The New York Times added his own comment, saying that he thought the Times could do a better job of finding information about remarkable women and non-white men; the Times researchers should try to find "a greater variety of subjects".

Is this situation analogous to arguments about the relative numbers of Great (white) Men vs. Women in literature, history, art etc., such as arguments related to why reading lists for classes on the Great Works of Literature are dominated by white male authors? That is, white men wrote the Great Works; that's just the way it is.

Some universities have addressed this issue by doing something similar to what the Times' public editor suggests: if you broaden your search, open up your definition of what is interesting and worthy of attention, you will find greatness.

Looking beyond the traditional definition of noteworthy for selecting candidates for obituaries in the Times is not affirmative action for dead people.

You can't right a historic wrong, but you can stop participating in the perpetuation of bias by focusing attention only only those who have succeeded in traditional ways in business, academia, government, journalism etc. Don't wait for the day when women and minorities succeed like white men in positions that were formerly the exclusive province of white men. Death to inequality!


Alex said...

As a future Dead White Male, I would hate to think that I might be kept out of the obituary section by an unqualified dead woman or dead minority. Obituary affirmative action will happen over my dead body!

(Because this is the internet, I need to clarify that the above was sarcasm.)

Dr. Brazen Hussy said...

How timely! I just learned of this letter to Nature yesterday, where the author noted that women scientists have achieved immortality, since they were never mentioned in the obituaries.


Anonymous said...


Ace said...

I heart you so much FSP!

Ann said...


Anonymous said...

if you broaden your search, open up your definition of what is interesting and worthy of attention, you will find greatness.

The general idea is also true with regard to faculty searches, graduate admissions, etc.

A little bit of effort in the search can drastically change the results.

EliRabett said...

Might be because women live longer.

John Gee said...

The Nature letter Ann links to suggests that women are not receiving obits that they deserve even by current standards of merit. You (and the NYT public editor) appear to suggest that we should "broaden our search," but that women will be underrepresented if we do not adjust our standards. Do you disagree with the Nature letter?

Either way, I'm curious as to how you think the search should be broadened. Is there an example of a non-traditionally great woman, who would deserve a NYT obit, that you have in mind? Or, perhaps, a non-traditionally great male who did get an obit?

affirmative action plans said...

this is funny. women scientists will live longer. how can science explain this?