Age discrimination at the ANU

This is the original version of a paper published in the ANU Reporter, in edited form and without references, under the title "Age discrimination in academia", volume 15, number 11, 27 July 1984, p. 2

Brian Martin


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In November 1983 a series of lectureships in the Faculties at the ANU were advertised. The advertisement stated that "The Faculties intend to appoint to these posts younger academics although no precise age limit is specified". Since the advertisement said that the lectureships were intended to help remedy the "age imbalance" in which by the 1990s only one quarter of the tenured staff of the Faculties would be under age 45, it is clear that the jobs are not intended for people much older than their mid-30s. Indeed, the ANU's original intention was to specify an explicit upper age limit of 35. A more restrictive age limit of 32 had also been mooted.[1]

In March 1984 the Research School of Chemistry at the ANU advertised the first of a series of posts as "part of a programme designed to attract outstanding young chemists to tenured positions within the School".[2] Though not so explicit, the intention seems to be to obtain new tenured staff in their 30s or late 20s.

These two examples are cases in which there is an explicit intention to appoint younger people. But much more widespread than this is covert age discrimination. In one case of which I am aware, all candidates over the age of 30 were summarily excluded from consideration, although the advertisement had not specified any such age criterion.

The introduction of age discrimination in academic appointments is a serious step, since it introduces a factor having no connection with academic criteria. In this paper I present some of the arguments against age discrimination,[3] and describe some alternatives to such discrimination.

The basic argument for age blindness

Chronological age itself has no relevance to a person's ability to perform a job and to contribute enthusiasm and new ideas. Therefore age discrimination should be ruled out just as discrimination should be ruled out on the basis of sex, ethnic origin, political affiliation, religion, nationality, sexual preference and other such factors.

A report by a Canadian Association of University Teachers Fact-Finding Committee on Discrimination or Unfair Hiring Practices in Making University Appointments introduced its discussion of fair appointment practices with this statement: "It is unlikely that anyone associated with any Canadian university would take issue with the general proposition that university appointment practices should be fair, both in avoiding discrimination on invalid grounds such as race, sex, age, or political opinion, and also in affording every candidate an equal opportunity for consideration on her or his individual merits."[4]

A possible exception noted by this committee was in special circumstances where affirmative action is needed to overcome the effects of past discrimination. But as I will note later, past discrimination on the basis of age has been, if anything, in favour of younger candidates.

Disadvantages of age discrimination

There are quite a number of disadvantages to age discrimination.

* The most obvious disadvantage is that the most suitable person for a task is not always obtained. For the ANU posts, outstanding older applicants will be ruled out of contention.

When discrimination occurs and is seen to occur, those discriminated against can become resentful and disillusioned because their hard work and achievement of high levels of academic performance is not fairly recognised. This certainly applies at the ANU. In the Research Schools, for example, there are quite a number of researchers in their 30s or older with outstanding academic records. If the few tenurable jobs which come up are given preferentially to less outstanding candidates simply because they are younger, a feeling of betrayal is only to be expected. Only a few years ago, university regulations were changed to allow research fellows to obtain a second research fellow appointment, precisely to keep outstanding scholars 'in the pipeline'. Now it seems that it is more important to be young than to have a long list of research achievements and an international reputation. Those at the end of the pipeline are finding that it empties on the academic scrap heap.

A related problem is that possible beneficiaries of age discrimination appointments may be encouraged to forego their principles and 'toe the line' in order to avoid loss of the favouritism displayed towards them. This can apply to particular young scholars but also to departments which are offered age discrimination posts. A case in point is the age discrimination lectureships advertised in the Faculties. There are six departments competing for four lectureships. Clearly any department which puts forward an older candidate will have little chance of obtaining its choice. This situation seems specially designed to subdue any qualms about the age discrimination itself.

* Age discrimination is de facto discrimination against women. First, talented women are more likely than men to have interrupted careers, due to child-bearing and rearing and also to social expectations and pressures. A woman with the same academic performance and promise is thus likely to be older.[5]

Second, previous sex discrimination may mean that some talented women have had less job experience and fewer publications at a given age. Thus they are likely to be older than male peers of the same job rank. The example of 'Barbara', who was initially barred from an ANU post because she was married to a man with a job, and then later discriminated against because of her lack of academic experience for a person her age, is a case in point.[6]

* Two of the problems of academia are staleness of individual academics and inflexibility of staffing. One of the causes of both these problems is the appointment of too many young staff in the past: the staff become stale after too many years in the same post, and the large single-age cohort prevents changes in staffing. Discriminating in favour of younger candidates can only perpetuate this pattern.

A related problem is that young academics are relatively unproven and their scholarly tenacity is untested. Quite a few young appointees in the 1960s have since been shown to be wanting. By contrast, older candidates often can demonstrate by their record that they do not become stale or 'burn out'.

Young appointments also help prevent movement between universities. The advertising of more senior positions and the appointment of more older candidates - including the already tenured - would increase staffing flexibility and scholarly cross-fertilisation.

* Younger candidates usually have had little experience outside academia. Those in the late 20s or early 30s who have a respectable list of publications usually have had time only to finish a Ph.D. and spend a few years in research or teaching. Preferring younger candidates reinforces the pattern of 'narrow-track' careerist academics: those who have not strayed from the academic research path with a narrow specialisation. Those who have taken time off to rear children, to develop a range of interests, to experience other cultures in depth, to work in a range of employments and to practise other talents are discriminated against. The preference for narrow-track academics is also usually a preference for men, many of whom have obtained significant career support from their wives.[7] And ironically, narrow-track academics are much more likely to become stale in their jobs, and much less likely to provide enthusiasm and new ideas for students and colleagues.

* As mature-age students become an ever greater fraction of students, there is much less need for youth in teachers - if indeed there ever was such a need. There is no necessary connection between chronological age and the ability to relate meaningfully with students.

Shortcomings of arguments for age discrimination

The arguments presented to justify age discrimination have been few and not systematically developed. In fact, there only seem to be two arguments for age discrimination that have been regularly advanced, and a third which lurks behind the scenes.

* Argument 1: There is a need for 'demographic balance'. This is the justification advanced for the age discrimination lectureships advertised in the Faculties.[8] There are several shortcomings in this argument.

First, no substantial justification has yet been produced for preferring a 'demographically balanced' employment profile rather than the profile that results simply from appointing candidates on academic grounds. It is simply assumed that 'demographic balance' is good.

Second, no evidence has been presented on what a 'balanced' profile should be. It is simply assumed that more young academics are needed than might result by using scholarly criteria. This may be quite false, since it takes the unusual situation in the late 1960s and early 1970s - when universities were rapidly expanding, mainly by appointing many young men - as the norm.

Third, there is already systematic discrimination in favour of younger academics, especially through preference for narrow-track male academics. Therefore 'balance' would more properly mean appointing more older candidates.

Fourth, the motivation behind invoking the 'demographic imbalance' argument to justify age discrimination is open to serious question, since there are more serious demographic imbalances than age, in particular sex and ethnicity. Indeed it might seem that redressing these more serious problems is sidestepped by focussing attention on alleged age imbalances. Perhaps the underlying psychological motivation behind the promotion of younger staff lies in the early career experience of present academic administrators, many of whom themselves entered academic careers at a young age on the typical narrow-track pattern.

Considering all the fuss about demographic imbalance, it is surprising that special funds have not been provided to hire Australia's first woman Vice-Chancellor.

* Argument 2: There is a need for 'new blood': for younger people to bring in enthusiasm and new ideas. This argument draws on a valid perception of the staleness of many academics but comes up with the invalid conclusion that rectifying staleness requires young appointments. But 'new blood' does not have to be 'young blood': older people, especially those with a range of experiences, can provide just as much enthusiasm and as many new ideas as young people. In addition, young appointments are more likely to lead eventually to staleness, precisely the problem they are supposed to overcome.

* Argument 3: Superannuation funds are in crisis, and more younger contributors are needed to provide money for retirees. Clearly this argument has nothing to do with academic considerations at all. A more suitable response would be to reform the superannuation systems.

Alternatives

There are a number of problems facing universities, including how to create more employment possibilities in a situation of restricted finances and limited flexibility, and how best to promote and utilise the intellectual talents of all people in society. Age discrimination is an attempt to overcome some of the inflexibility created by past employment policies, but at the expense of academic principles and with many other undesirable consequences. Rather than trying to overcome one 'imbalance' or discrimination with another form of discrimination, it would be better to look at alternatives. Here are some possibilities.

* More fractional appointments could be created or encouraged, with security equal to full-time appointments and benefits equal or proportional to full-time appointments. This could be done for example by advertising new posts as job-sharing positions or as several fractional appointments, and by encouraging present full-time staff to convert to fractional levels. Doing this would create more total positions, and would provide suitable avenues for people just entering academic careers to gain experience. Fractional posts would be advantageous for people who wished to maintain outside interests or activities, and thus would encourage more outward-looking attitudes among academics. In addition, fractional positions would be especially attractive to many academics who are bringing up small children, especially those committed to shared parenting or who are single parents.

* More total appointments might also be achieved by making more appointments at lower levels (such as lecturer) and fewer at higher levels (such as professor). For example, instead of filling a vacant chair, two lecturer positions (or four half-time lecturer positions) might be created. Since there is a surplus of academic talent presently available, this could only increase the utilisation of intellectual skills.

* More total appointments could be achieved by reducing or flattening academic salaries. For example, high salaries (such as lecturer or senior lecturer and above) could be frozen or reduced. This would help redress the unfairness inherent in the present distribution of jobs. At the moment, some tenured staff would have little chance of re-obtaining their present jobs if they were openly advertised. In essence, many of those with tenured posts are unfairly privileged solely due to historical coincidence - namely their obtaining posts in a period of expansion and shortage of qualified academics. Now, the many talented scholars without tenured positions - or positions at all - are left without a share of the benefits, or even much of a chance of of obtaining them. Lowering salaries and increasing the number of jobs would both place these talented nomads in positions where their skills could be used effectively and share the benefits of academic life to more of those deserving of them.

* Another alternative would be to change the tenure system so that security is greatest for those in the lowest positions rather than those in the highest positions. For example, research assistants and tutors might be given continuing appointments, lecturers ten-year appointments, and professors two-year appointments. Those in higher appointments would return to a lower position unless reappointment were made on the basis of current performance. This approach would avoid the problem of stale and unproductive staff sitting in perpetuity in high-level tenured positions.

* More weight could be placed on experience in non-academic areas, and on interdisciplinary and critical research and teaching, in order to reduce the current over-rewarding of narrow specialisation. Such a change in emphasis would help overcome staleness which often results from inward-looking specialisation, and would also open job possibilities for more people with less conventional backgrounds, such as people in industry, government, the professions, community service and the like.

Several of these alternatives could be usefully combined. By creating more fractional appointments, lowering top salaries and reducing the security of top positions, and placing more weight on non-academic experience, the university would be much more open to a range of ideas, experiences and styles of work. This would do much to overcome both the staleness and the inflexibility presently afflicting universities. And it would also create many openings for both young and old people to enter academic life at a level and intensity which they would find suitable personally and stimulating intellectually. This would allow society to benefit from the enthusiasm and commitment to scholarly goals of many whose capabilities are now being neglected or wasted.

 

Notes

1. Canberra Times, 19 November 1983, p. 36; 'ANU moves to counter staff age imbalance', Australian, 9 November 1983, p. 19. See also 'Demographic profile of the Faculties', Australian National University document 2623/1983, 16 September 1983, which recommends that "The maximum permissible age should be no more than 35 years when applications close."

2. Weekend Australian, 24-25 March 1984, p. 50.

3. See also E. L. Roberts, letter, ANU Reporter, vol 15, no 2, 9 March 1984, p. 6 and David A. Hume, letter, ANU Reporter, vol 15, no 3, 23 March 1984, p. 6.

4. Dale Gibson, Andre Cote and J. K. Johnstone (CAUT Fact-Finding Committee on Discrimination or Unfair Hiring Practices in Making University Appointments), 'Report', CAUT Bulletin, April 1984, pp. 49-55, quote from p. 49.

5. Bettina Cass, Madge Dawson, Diana Temple, Sue Wills and Anne Winkler, Why So Few? Women Academics in Australian Universities (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1983), especially pp. 44, 56, 58, 145; Marian Sawer, Towards Equality of Opportunity: Women and Employment at the Australian National University (Canberra: Australian National University, 1984), pp. 113-116.

6. Sawer, op. cit. note 5, pp. 118-121.

7. Helen Papanek, 'Men, women, and work: reflections on the two-person career', American Journal of Sociology, vol 78, no 4, January 1973, pp. 852-872; see also Cass et al., op. cit. note 5, especially pp. 89, 135-6, 145, 151.

8. Gigi Santow and Michael Bracher, A Demographic Profile of the Australian National University (Canberra: ANU, 1983); Michael Bracher and Gigi Santow, 'Past growth and its implications for the future development of the Australian National University', Vestes, vol 27, no 1, 1984, pp. 8-13.