Why diversity management requires an anti-categorical approach…

…and how this relates to performance assessment in an academic context

Diversity management and inclusion are intended to avoid discrimination and to promote historically disadvantaged groups. This results in pre-defined social groups, and individuals belonging to these groups are perceived to be in need of special treatment and support. In diversity studies, this is referred to as the categorical approach. While this approach can lead to a number of important measures aimed at disadvantaged groups (e.g. programs for the promotion of women, affirmative action programs), it can overlook the fact that the need for support is – especially in light of recent societal changes – not necessarily limited to members of a specific social category.

Let me give an example: If we want to reduce the risk of poverty, many would argue that single mothers or elderly women are particularly in need of support. If we take a broader approach to the issue of need, we could identify risk factors such as a low level of education, caretaking responsibilities, and precarious working conditions. The people who tick all of these boxes will probably be 98% women, but there will also be some men among them. In other words, an anti-categorical approach will include disadvantaged people regardless of their social category (although the probability of being in the disadvantaged group might be unequally distributed among social categories). Clearly, this approach will encourage increased solidarity and a shared interest in fighting together for improvement.

The anti-categorical approach is also an interesting concept for the academic world and its understanding of academic careers. The leaky pipeline (i.e. the loss of highly talented female scholars in the academic hierarchy) very often leads to special programs for female academics, trying to help them to overcome certain deficits. Again, it is assumed that being a woman automatically leads to difficulties in pursuing an academic career.

What is often overlooked is the fact that our understanding of academic performance tends to be very normative, particularly with regard to counting research output only. The anti-categorical approach involves a new understanding of performance, i.e. performance as a relative concept, relative to the performance opportunities a scholar has been offered. This understanding allows us also to take diverse biographies into account and makes human resource decisions such as hiring and promotion fairer and more balanced.

Allow me to present a further example: selecting the best applicants for faculty positions. The focus is often exclusively on research output, i.e. the more publications, the better. But this approach expects candidates to have had a linear, full-time career with no interruptions. It provides a very limited perspective.

WU (Vienna University of Economics and Business) has been discussing a more comprehensive in-house performance assessment system for senior faculty, based on an anti-categorical approach and taking researchers’ biographical contexts into account [1].

Academic performance assessment as an anti-categorical concept

How can we apply the anti-categorical approach to academic performance assessment? First, by taking not only academic publications but also teaching achievements and third-mission contributions into account when reviewing an individual’s performance portfolio.

More importantly, we need to take candidates’ biographical contexts into consideration. If, for example, you compare only the number of publications produced by two individual scholars, ten journal articles are obviously more than seven. However, once you take into account that it was a full-time academic who published the ten articles and a part-time employee who authored the seven papers, your judgement of these researchers’ performance will change considerably. To get an impression of a scholar’s potential, the time limitations he or she is facing are a particularly important contextual factor.

Career paths have changed significantly over the past few years, more and more researchers are completing their PhD at age 35 instead of 25 for a variety of reasons, maybe because they had a job during their studies, started their degree program late, or – for whatever reason – took some time off.

The anti-categorical approach allows for a fair assessment, which might statistically be more advantageous for women since their academic portfolios and career paths are often “non-standard” due to biographical factors. However, it does not a priori exclude men who might also have non-standard biographies.

Faculty recruitment and promotion decisions are essentially educated guesses for the future, made by assessing past performance. The anti-categorical approach to performance as a relative concept simply helps us make more adequate educated guesses.

To learn more about WU’s approach, please see the following article published in Global Focus Magazine: https://globalfocusmagazine.com/assessing-academics-performance/

[1] The process for assessing multiple aspects of performance at WU is inspired by the approach of measuring achievement or performance relative to opportunity, which is primarily used by universities in Australia and New Zealand.