Affirmative Action for Women?

“They had applied their standard as impartially as they knew how, but it was a male standard.” (Robert Reich, Former Secretary of Labor)

Affirmative action is an attempt to create equal opportunity for those that have been historically disenfranchised or excluded.  In this essay, I will attempt to explain both how and why affirmative action in hiring and promotion should be extended to women. The denial of tenure to the wife of Robert Reich by her male faculty is just one of many cases of gender discrimination in hiring and promotion. Data on the wages of men and women is convincing evidence of the inequalities that exist between them in the workplace. In every racial/ethnic group there is a clear disparity between the median wages of men and women, with men typically earning around $100 more a week.  In order to properly address the ongoing inequalities experienced by women in the workplace, the government should attempt to eliminate employer discrimination, but must focus on removing barriers and reducing inequalities caused by structural discrimination. As Michael Luo explains, “Discrimination in many cases may not even be intentional…but simply a matter of people gravitating toward similar people….”

Why is it necessary to more fully extend “affirmative action” to women?  It is undeniable that women have a history of being discriminated against and excluded. Women didn’t gain the right to vote until 1920 and have long been struggling for equal labor rights. Though the patriarchal control of society has diminished since the early 20th century, remnants of it still remain. Much of the disadvantage and discrimination faced by women in the 21st century workplace is not the intended result of their male counterparts, but is due to the structure of institutions and selection processes. Nevertheless, as Peggy McIntosh points out, we typically think of gender discrimination as being perpetrated through individual acts towards women, “…rather than in invisible systems conferring unsought dominance on certain groups.” For example, the present system of testing, which is a crucial component of selection processes for job or opportunities that lead to a job, is fundamentally more advantageous to men, who are on average better at standardized tests than women. Placing more importance on test scores rather than a high GPA which is more common for women, is evidence of structural discrimination, whether or not it is intentional. We must reconsider, as Susan Sturm and Lani Guinier suggest, “…the connection between predetermined qualifications and future performance.”

The most effective way to more fully extend affirmative action to women is to change the way we approach affirmative action. To fight discrimination that is structurally entrenched, we need to, as Sturm and Guinier suggest, “…move from affirmative action as an add-on to affirmative action as an occasion to rethink the organizing framework for selection generally.” The current system of affirmative action as an “add-on” has many issues. Foremost, affirmative action as an “add-on” can be highly divisive and demoralizing. For example, two candidates, a male and female, apply for a job or promotion. The man is much more highly qualified for the position but due to affirmative action the female is selected. Such a strategy for affirmative action is often seen as essentially unfair, but it also fosters a feeling of “unearned advantage” and sends men a signal that they have an undesirable “conferred dominance.”

Obviously, a policy of affirmative action as an “add-on” could not be good for the health and cooperation of American citizens. It is clear that in order to properly extend “affirmative action” to women in the workplace we must not only address individual acts of discrimination, or use affirmative action as an add-on to the current selection process and structure, but must also attempt to fundamentally alter the “invisible systems”  that create barriers to hiring women and engender unequal opportunity for promotion.


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