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Guggenheims galore

In a first, U faculty win multiple Guggenheims in consecutive years

By Deane Morrison

Robin Stryker
Guggenheim fellowship winner Robin Stryker studies the interplay of law and social science.

April 30, 2008

It's not unusual for University faculty to win prestigious Guggenheim fellowships. But with three winners this year and four last year, the U has garnered multiple Guggenheims two years in a row for the first time since 1980. The U's 2008 winners hail from diverse fields: Kathryn Sikkink, Regents Professor of political science; Robin Stryker, professor of sociology; and Douglas Arnold, professor of mathematics. They are among the 190 artists, scientists, and scholars selected from more than 2,600 applicants in the United States and Canada to receive awards totaling $8,200,000. The awards single out winners for both high achievement and the promise of great things to come. For Stryker, that means finishing a book on how social scientists and statisticians were mobilized to enforce Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

Kathryn Sikkink
Guggenheim winner Kathryn Sikkink is a Regents Professor of political science.

The child of a prominent social psychologist, Stryker lived with her family in Italy, then on her own in France and Switzerland. Delighted to find herself playing the role of a bridge between cultures, she went on to study law as well as sociology. She has parlayed her unique perspective on both fields into a career studying the interplay between social sciences and law in efforts to lessen inequalities in society. A big question she has tackled repeatedly is under what conditions laws designed to help the disadvantaged are passed and enforced--or not. For a look at the various forces that shape such laws, consider Title VII, which prohibits discrimination in the workplace.

"Men and women both undervalue jobs done by women. If you ask students what they think their professors do, if the professors are women, the students emphasize the teaching function. For men, they emphasize research."

"Nowhere does it define discrimination," says Stryker. "So the courts had to."

Visualizing human rights--and the Universe

Kathryn Sikkink, a Regents Professor and Distinguished Mcknight University Professor, was lauded by the Guggenheim Foundation for her work on the origins and effects of human rights trials in the world. Her research also includes U.S. human rights policy; women's rights; transnational advocacy networks; social justice; political activism; Latin American politics; grassroots politics; war crimes tribunals; and international human rights norms and law.

Douglas Arnold is director of the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications. His research focuses on developing and understanding mathematical algorithms that enable the computer simulation of physical phenomena ranging from the deformation of elastic plates and shells to the collision of black holes. He is president-elect of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, the leading professional organization for applied mathematicians, computational scientists and engineers.

There were two chief ways to go about it. One could define discrimination as the result of an "evil intent" on the part of employers, or one could say that illegal discrimination existed as the result of practices that, while not ill-intentioned, had the effect of disadvantaging employees or prospective employees on the basis of race or sex. One practice used by many employers was a test of general thinking ability, which may seem harmless. But workers of color, especially in the South, were more likely than whites to have had a substandard education in a segregated school. Therefore, even in the absence of evil intent, such a test would tend to screen out those workers, not whites. "This is the 'effects-oriented' concept of discrimination," Stryker says. "It's enough that a practice is there and it has the effect that it has. This counts as discrimination unless the employer can show the screening predicts job performance." But industrial psychologists were able to show that the general thinking tests used in the 1960s to screen for blue collar jobs had no such predictive ability for those jobs. In 1971 the Supreme Court ruled that the effects-oriented concept of discrimination was valid. In the mid-80's, extending Title VII to ensure equal pay for comparable--not identical--work by men and women didn't fare so well. In searching for the reason, Stryker found that sociologists and economists ended up, for the most part, on opposite sides of the debate. Most sociologists favored comparable worth measures; but while they disagreed strongly with economists about the causes of gender pay inequality, they also disagreed among themselves. Thus, they failed to present a united front. "In the end, although many states passed comparable worth legislation for their public sector employees, the federal courts refused to interpret Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to cover pay disparities between men and women in jobs that were different, but that involved the same degree of skill, responsibility, and effort," Stryker says.

Douglas Arnold
Guggenheim winner Douglas Arnold is director of the U's Institute for Mathematics and Its Applications.

The basis for believing that women may be paid less for work involving comparable skills lies in attitudes, says Stryker. "Men and women both undervalue jobs done by women," she says. "If you ask students what they think their professors do, if the professors are women, the students emphasize the teaching function. For men, they emphasize research." In ratings of jobs, she adds, one gets more "job complexity" points for managing budgets than for managing kindergartners. In a third study, Stryker reviewed the debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which had to do with the continued validity of the effects-oriented concept of discrimination. The legislation passed, but its supporters declared "This is not a quota bill" so often that the word "quota" became associated with the bill. The "q-word" reverberated so strongly that, says Stryker, they "fed into and promoted backlash against affirmative action even though the 1991 Civil Rights Act had nothing to do with the issue of affirmative action." If one thing leaps from Stryker's work, it's that laws are necessary, but hardly sufficient, to remedy inequalities in society. It's the cultural and political activity involved in law enforcement and in the broader social life that makes or breaks progress toward the goal of true equality.