Affirmative Action For Women

This is part of a seven-part series on Race Relations that are being considered for submission.  I will need to submit two more essays, and this is one of my top contenders.  It is running long and will need to be edited if it is chosen.

I. The Goal of Affirmative Action

The justifications for racial affirmative action stem from: 1) An underrepresentation of minorities, and 2) The impression that that underrepresentation stems from unequal opportunities. Gender-based affirmative action can also be justified under both of these causes. Women are proportionally underrepresented in many areas. Furthermore, there is a common perception that gender-biased policies and perceptions are the cause of this underrepresentation.

A. Diversity

To the extent that one is arguing for diversity, women and minorities face different, but comparable issues. In both cases, there is a need not just for representation, but for representation that rises above the level of tokenism. In this respect, as well, women have an advantage. Since women are half the population, even numbers that are merely half of proportional representation will be a ‘critical mass’.

By critical mass, I mean a sufficient number of women or minorities in a workplace that they can become a supportive community for each other. Both women and minorities face different issues than do their white male counterparts. To the extent that they are the only ones of their kind, or even part of a significant ‘first generation’, they will lack mentors and role models from the higher ranks to help them deal with the issues unique to their race or gender. Tokenism also comes into play when one is part of a small group – a woman or a minority will feel pressure to represent their group, or may feel stigmatized or isolated by the impression their membership in that group gave them an unfair advantage.

Since racial minorities are just that – and therefore a smaller group in society itself, they are less likely to achieve this critical mass. When a group represents twelve percent of the population, affirmative action that results in them making up five percent of the workforce may not be enough to overcome the tokenism problem. Therefore, although advantages for both women and minorities may help work towards diversity, these efforts are less needed for women than they are for blacks and Hispanics.

B. Disadvantages

The underrepresentation of minorities in things such as colleges and workplaces is perceived as stemming from our history of slavery and racism. Wealth is inheritable, and parents can pass onto their children more than just trust funds: such as money for educational opportunities, homework help, education-based values, and legacy admissions. Descending from slaves reduces the chances that one will be in this situation – there would have been fewer privileged generations in which one’s ancestors could obtain the status that would have filtered down to today’s children. Segregation and the societal reality of racism decrease these odds even further. We are just now reaching a point at which college students have parents who did not grow up during segregation, meaning that, insofar as it was a barrier to achievement in and of itself, there has only been one generation with the opportunity to become self-made and place their children in advantaged positions.

None of these concerns are implicated in gender. Women are just as likely to have wealthy parents as men are. The real difference, then would be in the way these parents treat their daughters. If they are making gender-based assumptions about what these women should or can accomplish, these inheritable advantages will not be passed on. While this is very much a reality, especially in religious or conservative populations, I would argue that it does not rise to the level of racial disadvantage.

II Real v. Perceived Differences

A. Intelligence

These policies are premised on the notion that there are no inherent differences between blacks and whites, women and men. Although an atmosphere that discourages academic exploration of racial differences has prevented us from proving so conclusively, the serious flaws in the articles concluding that there is a real difference in innate intelligence lend credence to the idea that differences between the races are situational. Although IQ scores and other attempts to determine intelligence show differences, it is impossible to disprove the theory that these differences are caused by external factors. Differences in parental income and education may well be the entire causal factor.

Even tests on young infants which attempt to prove innate differences ignore the possibility that the pregnancy itself may effect development. Wealthier women are more likely to have extensive, frequent medical care, more likely to take expensive natal vitamins, and more likely to have better nutrition. Unfortunately, they are also less likely to take drugs that may harm their children.

Although one could argue that the differences, whatever their cause, justify underrepresentation in colleges and workplaces, this is an arguable point. In a society which strives to allow each person to achieve their potential, the long-term consequences of affirmative action weigh in favor of diversity. If these differences are externally caused, then assuring more equality of outcome will help prevent these same factors from influencing the abilities of the next generation. Additionally, insofar as these differences can be overcome by an adult, giving minorities the same opportunities would give each person the opportunity to ‘catch up’ as they progress.

There is no reason to believe that similar factors affect gender, since there is no difference in parentage, moreover there is less of an intelligence gap to explain. Although some differences have been found, the same academic taboos have prevented us from really knowing whether there are cognitive differences between men and women in math and sciences. However, insofar as women excel in other equally valuable fields, such as English, psychology, and history, we can conclude that there is no innate discrepancy between the intelligence of men and women.

B. Achievement

Perhaps the most compelling difference between gender and race is the extent to which achievement is caused by external vs. internal factors. Although both groups are arguably equal in potential intelligence, there is very little reason to believe that if all else (education, intelligence) are equal, that a minority would accomplish less. Only the most extreme racists have advocated racial differences in work ethic and ambition.

On the other hand, a significant portion of women’s underrepresentation stems from what they do once they have achieved equal intelligence, education, and even employment. In the law firm context, the retention of women is cited as a major problem. Even when women are accepted into law school and hired in equal numbers, they will still be underrepresented in the partnership of these firms. For biological and cultural differences that I discuss below, there are real differences in what women do with equal opportunities. Therefore, these programs will have much less result on the highest levels than will affirmative action for racial minorities.

C. Predictability of Differences

These differences in achievement mean that the generalized differences for racial minorities do not apply to a single individual. If someone can prove themselves equal in intelligence and education, an employer or admissions officer has no reason to believe that the general discrepancies have any bearing on that person’s potential. On the other hand, since women have different retention rates, these generalities cannot be disproved on the individual level. Since the difference is yet to be seen, an employer can reasonably look at generalities and expect them to have some bearing on that woman’s future with his company. It would be difficult for an individual female to ‘prove’ herself as an individual to whom those generalities do not apply.

IV. External v. Internal Differences

A. Biological Differences.

Most of the differences that people observe between persons of different races can arguably be ascribed to external circumstances. The color of one’s skin has no logical bearing on their careers and education; insofar as it does it is a result of external, temporary social causes. The intrinsic differences between men and women are more than skin deep; the biological differences have an impact on societal roles that are unlikely to disappear.

Societal perceptions of women’s abilities are fading with each generation. Although they remain a real source of difference of women’s achievement, this is only part of the reason they are underrepresented in business and government, and only part of the reason they earn less than men do.

Women’s ability to bear children is a chief cause of modern differences. This biological fact is far more relevant than the amount of pigment in one’s skin, and the societal repercussions of this difference are unlikely to disappear entirely. As long as we are to perpetuate the species, this will cause gender differences in the workplace.

In the present it is not just maternity leave which is causing differences in the workplace. Women are far more likely to decide to stay home after having a child, far more likely to take on the role of primary caregiver and have to leave work often to care for a sick child. They are more likely to want to work part time to spend more time with their children.

To the extent that hormones from pregnancy are the cause of this imbalance, these facts may always be with us. However, even if they are a result of societal forces, some differences can never be removed. Many women will choose to breastfeed, so if they return to work they will need time and a space to fulfill this basic need. They will also need to take time off of work to give birth and recover, and will run the risk of having to leave for longer periods of time should complications occur. In a world where women are having children later in life and seeking fertility treatments, such complications will continue becoming more common.

B. Psychological Differences.

The wage gap reflects these differences. Women’s’ decisions to stop working or work part time while raising their children have a very real impact on their lifetime earning. These differences also reflects different career choices that women make – such as nurturing careers like nursing and teaching. Although many women currently in the workforce were pressured by society into choosing nurturing professions, these trends may well continue when these external pressures are removed.

They may well reflect real differences in female psychology, the results of hormonal differences, or a desire to have a more flexible career. It may reflect a lesser drive toward power and money, to the extent that testosterone is a partial cause of such ambitions. Of course, men as a group may shift more toward this perspective, and changes in culture may change women’s priorities as well. However, the possibility that hormonal differences are a causal factor remains, and must be taken into account in formulating affirmative action policies.

IV Reevaluating Affirmative Action

A. Is Change Needed?

However, to the extent that the wage gap reflects different choices, affirmative action may not be needed. If women’s career decisions steer them into lower-paying jobs, the idea that we need to fix the wage gap may itself reflect a bias. If women are consciously choosing paths that deprioritize money, there may be no need to second-guess those choices. Indeed, one can argue that prioritizing family over career, nurturing over power, and free time over money reflects a morally superior position.

Affirmative action efforts that give an unfair advantage to the women who do pursue these careers may be an attempt to remedy a problem that does not exist, and attempts to push women into higher-paying jobs may be interfering with valid decisions. While this does not invalidate attempts to promote and retain women for the sake of diversity and to remedy prejudice, such efforts should not stem from an assumption that pay equality is a necessary result.

B. The End of Affirmative Action

Arguments for racial affirmative action are based on temporary conditions. If affirmative action were able to work ideally, we would be able to use it to change the race-poverty connection. In a world without racism, where past affirmative action has assured blacks jobs and degrees in equal numbers to whites, the next generation of blacks would not be disadvantaged. While this is an impossibility in the short-term, real improvements have been made. It is possible that over the course of the next few generations, we will be much closer to this ideal.

In this situation, affirmative action would not be needed. Thus, there is a real, achievable goal in racial affirmative action. The same cannot necessarily be said of gender-based affirmative action. If differences in psychology and biology are real and permanent, gender-based programs that aim for complete equality may be working towards an impossible goal.

C. What Should These Programs Look Like?

Since racially-based affirmative action exists in a context where gaps in income and education are a result of external forces, complete equality of outcome is possible. It is beyond the scope of this essay to say just how far programs should go to that end, but a full equality of outcome should be the ultimate aim.

In contrast, the goals of gender affirmative action should be to ensure that sexism in elementary and secondary school teachers not be allowed to hurt women’s chances in college admissions, that women from traditional families be given the opportunity to overcome differing parental support, and that we reach out to girls to make sure that they know they can choose any life path they want.

Many have proposed workplace affirmative action, such as extended maternity leave with promises of reinstatement to their former position, paid maternity leave, part-time arrangements, flexible schedules, greater permissiveness for occasional leave, and subsidized daycare. Such programs are designed to improve retention of women, but are not called affirmative action since they are usually available to all employees. However, since the call for such subsidies stem from gender-based goals, and women are by far the greatest users of such programs, that is their effect.

These programs are undertaken voluntarily by employers. To the extent that they are an effort to ensure diversity and critical mass, that is their prerogative. However, to the extent that they reflect pressure from special interest groups, they may actually harm women and unfairly burden other employees. Groups that begin with an assumption that the gender pay gap is an externally-caused problem that needs a remedy may pressure employers to aim for proportional representation. The employer may be reducing the profitability of the company, the pay of their employees, and binding other workers to longer, less flexible hours to maintain these incentive systems. If a majority of companies adopt these policies, employees may have no choice but to accept these burdens for the sake of achieving an impossible goal of equal representation, and of retaining female employees who may still choose other priorities

To the extent that these policies are a result not of pressure to retain women, but to adopt these policies themselves, women may be harmed. An employer who knows that a female employee is far more likely to utilize costly and inconvenient programs may have a disincentive to hire women. Employers who already fear undertaking the costly training for a woman who is likely to leave will have one more conscious or subconscious reason to prefer male applicants.

The solution is to require and pressure companies to hire women and promote remaining female employees at the same rate. If all female applicants are given equal consideration, and equally situated employees are given partnership status and other promotion at rates on par with their male coworkers, the discrepancy seen in higher-ranking employees will truly be a result of choice and differing priorities.

The affirmative action programs described above may still be implemented, but they must be done so while conscious of the policy choices they are making. An employer may still implement them because they feel that more women in leadership is a goal worth the price of these programs, or because they desire to subsidize parenting. However, they should not be undertaken because external pressure are turning a blind eye to real differences between men and women, or are imposing their own value systems on women.

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