Paris elite school gets a lesson on possible gender bias

FRANCE Paris’ prestigious postgraduate school Ecole Normale Superieure (ENS) was in for a surprise this summer when results of its admission exam for literature came out.

A whopping 77% of the successful candidates for the main literature section were women, significantly higher than the 59% average over the past five years, according to ENS admission lists published in the French official gazette.

The reason? Entrance to the elite Latin Quarter-based institution’s programme this year was based entirely on a blind, written test that didn’t reveal the candidates’ identities. An oral exam that usually accompanies the written test had to be cancelled because of the pandemic. Of the 72 people admitted to the section, 55 were women.

The result didn’t go unnoticed. For Sandra Lapointe, a professor of Philosophy at McMaster University and a research affiliate at Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute and Future Skills Centre in Canada, the outcome was a sign of unconscious biases that can emerge during an oral presentation.

Her tweet on the matter triggered scores of responses, with many concluding that the process was unfair, suggesting a gender bias at the school.

“Paris ENS is France’s top school and aggregation there is highly competitive. This year, due to Covid-19, they cancelled the orals, only had the (anonymous) written exam. As a result, ~80% of successful candidates were women. 8-0. Eighty,” tweeted Lapointe.

For Lapointe, however, the lesson is more nuanced. After all, women did make up a majority of those admitted even before this year.

Instead, for her the case provides the perfect conditions for a small- scale experiment, demonstrating that the school needs to take a closer look at its oral exam.

“Actually, this sends a signal that should make people ask relevant questions,” she said in a phone interview.

The school said in an emailed statement that “it is far from indifferent to the biases and logic of self-censorship and selection that can operate, in particular on the basis of gender and social origins”. — Bloomberg