Equal Parts a Mess, Affirmative Action and the Gender Correlation

By Daniel J. Durand

If all is fair in love and war, what about the battle of the sexes? Gender-related affirmative action policies are a tough nut to crack politically, and seem to lead to quite a bit of media hype and strong feelings amongst activists. While it seems easy enough to get lost in the sea of information available to society today through social networking, what needs to be remembered is that there are primarily two sides to this issue, both of which offering alternative extremes: those who would continue and expand affirmative action programs, and those who would do away with them altogether.

Along with the easily-identified sides of this issue, there are several key bits of misinformation which add a healthy amount of confusion to the mix. The oft-quoted statistics claiming that women make less money for performing the same tasks as men and the idea of male and female “dominated” jobs are both examples of talking points based on a grain of truth, and then misinterpreted to support a bogus claim. How people are really affected by affirmative action and the reflection of public opinion also tends to be skewed. These topics will be dissected in further detail later in the paper, which has been broken into the following parts:

  1. What is affirmative action, and how does it relate to gender-issues?
  2. What are the main arguments for or against affirmative action policies?
  3. What does public opinion have to say?
  4. Is affirmative action still necessary?

Hopefully, with an understanding of this particular issue, more people will be able to decide for themselves which side they are on, and base their opinions on fact rather than speculation and political banter.

What is Affirmative Action, and how does it relate to gender-issues?

Affirmative action is a set of political practices aimed at ending discrimination in society, primarily the workforce, through the preferential hiring of women and minorities, and to make up for past discrimination against those same groups by offering incentives to those entering traditionally minority-lacking fields. The hope is to improve diversity and make sure that the “little guy” is fairly represented. Various forms of affirmative action policies exist throughout the world and for various groups and causes, with the primary goals of equality and fair representation remaining the motivation.

As far as gender-related affirmative action goes, much of it is aimed towards women, thanks largely to the feminist movement. Women have been recognized as being an oppressed minority due to their relatively small numbers in the workplace when compared to men and the number of “male-dominated” careers. While some affirmative action for men exists, the practice has been primarily associated with womens rights. Historically, the concept comes from the trend in society for women to be stay-at-home mothers, caring for children and performing household work. Traditional families would live off of the sole income of the “man of the house”, while women would usually seek employment only when faced with extreme necessity, i.e. Rosie the Riveter, or when the man’s income was not enough to meet household demands.

What are the main arguments for or against affirmative action policies?

Supporters of affirmative action argue that the policies increase diversity and offer incentives to those at a disadvantage. Grounded in the ideal that diversity is a good thing, they believe that it should be encouraged regardless of the means through which it is created, as diversity may not always occur without social adjustment. Furthermore, affirmative action compensates for past oppression against minorities. Those opposed to the idea of affirmative action counter by stating that affirmative action is reverse-discrimination, and beneficiaries of the practice are not always capable or deserving. Meanwhile, people who belong to minorities and do succeed in society may be doubted, as who can tell if their success is truly their own, or the result of a handout (Messerli, 2010)?

To illustrate this, imagine a person is applying for a job. They are a man with the appropriate level of education and an outstanding resume. Now suppose this person were to be competing for the same job with a woman. The female applicant is just as qualified as the male. Who should the employer hire?

If the employer chooses the woman over the man, supporters of affirmative action would say the employer is contributing to diversity in the traditionally male dominated workforce. While the male may feel discriminated against because of his gender, the supporters would argue that the end justifies the means because of the diversity created by hiring a woman. Critics of affirmative action would call this “reverse-discrimination”, as the deciding factor in hiring was in fact gender; the reason anti-discrimination laws were created in the first place. As for the woman, the fact that she was selected for the position based on her anatomy, and not for her ability, undermines the fact that she was hired. Why should she have tried so hard to get the position when all they really needed was to be a woman?

On the other hand, if the employer chooses the man, the woman may feel discriminated against because of her gender, making a sort of lose-lose situation for the employer. Many companies and even universities now have quotas dictating how many of each gender and race to include on their rosters, which makes affirmative action even nastier because somebody has to decide just how many of each group are to be included. Who decides when the roster is diverse enough?

What does public opinion have to say?

According to one telephone survey carried out by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media, 63% of those surveyed supported affirmative action policies for women. 29% opposed, while 9% were unsure. The survey included one thousand adults in the United States (2009).

A Gallup poll found that between 53% and 59% of American adults supported affirmative action policies aimed at women. However, when asked whether or not affirmative action policies were needed today, a slight majority replied that they were not. 76% of respondents were against policies that preferentially hired women if it meant lowering hiring standards, and 67% favored policies that would hire women while maintaining hiring standards (USA Today, 2005).

Based on these results, it appears that people in general are supportive of affirmative action- but only when it keeps merit in mind. Americans like the idea of diversity, but not when it compromises quality. If a person is hired only because of their gender, most Americans would look at the situation unfavorably, but would support hiring a good employee who happens to be a woman.

Is affirmative action still necessary?

So just how effective have these policies been? According to UnderstandingPrejudice.org, affirmative action has been beneficial to both women and minorities. Their article “Ten Myths About Affirmative Action,” cited findings by the U.S. Labor Department and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs to support this claim (Plous, 2010).

Equal Rights Advocates, another organization with goals similar to those of Understanding Prejudice, has a page on their website filled with statistics relating to women and affirmative action. According to the page, the percentage of women in the workforce has increased across the board since affirmative action started, though some women still felt there was a “glass ceiling” for women striving to reach upper-management level positions. Meanwhile, the number of female-owned businesses has increased dramatically (Equal Rights Advocates, 2002).

As for gender-dominated fields, they do exist, though not in the way one might think. Male-dominated fields include construction, mechanical, and truck-driving, while female-dominated professions include hairdresser, daycare services, and receptionist. Careers that have roughly equal amounts of both men and women are, among others, administrative, legal, bookkeeping and owning a restaurant (Lucassen, 2002).

Though it is commonly stated that men make more than women for doing the same job, with women making approximately 76 cents for every dollar a man makes, the simple fact is that this not true. In the CNNMoney article The 76-cent Myth by Jeanne Sahadi, “all the wage-gap ratio reflects is a comparison of the median earnings of all working women and men who log at least 35 hours a week on the job, any job. That's it.” (Sahadi, 2006). In other words, the study is not comparing men and women with the same qualifications who work the same job. The reason for the 24-cent difference is because most working women have lower-paying jobs than working men.

What about women and higher education? The article Affirmative Action Coverage Ignores Women—and Discrimination referenced when the University of California did away with gender preferences in 1998. Apparently, because of the number of women applying, while the University did have an acceptance policy, they never based enrollment on gender. (Jackson, 1999). Furthermore, an article by USA Today stated that approximately 57% of college students in the United States are female, with some schools resorting to affirmative action aimed at male students in order to maintain some semblance of a gender balance (Marklein, 2005).

To sum up, there are more women pursuing a higher education than men. The jobs that are available to both men and women pay men and women the same rate, though most women make less than men at the end of every pay period. Furthermore, while legally anyone is able to pursue any type of career, there are still gender-dominated fields. So what does it all mean?

Looking at the evidence, one might conclude that women are pursuing the careers they want to pursue. The high number of female college students proves they are pursuing some sort of career, while the presence of more female-dominated careers proves that many women are pursuing a common interest. In other words, women have the same opportunities as everyone else- they just prefer some over others.

Furthermore, the reason women make less than men is because, in our society, many women take on a job only to bring in a second income, and many of the female-dominated careers are low-paying. It is still common in our society for the man to make the sole or primary income, while the woman takes the stay-at-home-mother route. If these conclusions are accurate, that means that affirmative action may well have done its job, and it may be time to start thinking about phasing it out.


USA Today. (2005, May 20). Gallup Poll results. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/news/polls/tables/live/0623.htm

Angus Reid Public Opinion. (2009, June 4). Americans Support Affirmative Action Programs. Retrieved from http://www.angus-reid.com/polls/36242/americans_support_affirmative_actions_programs/

Jackson. (1999). Affirmative Action Coverage Ignores Women—and Discrimination. Retrieved from http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1442

Lucassen. (2002, November 11). Male and female dominated fields, 2001. Retrieved from http://www.cbs.nl/en-GB/menu/themas/arbeid-sociale-zekerheid/publicaties/artikelen/archief/2002/2002-1076-wm.htm

Equal Rights Advocates. (2010). The Glass Ceiling. Retrieved from http://www.equalrights.org/publications/reports/affirm/glassstats.asp

Plous. (2003). Ten myths about affirmative action. Retrieved from http://www.understandingprejudice.org/readroom/articles/affirm.htm

Marklein. (2005, October 19). College gender gap widens: 57% are women. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2005-10-19-male-college-cover_x.htm

Messerli. (2010, August 12). Should affirmative action policies, which give preferential treatment based on minority status, be eliminated?. Retrieved from http://www.balancedpolitics.org/affirmative_action.htm

Sahadi. (2006, February 21). The 76-cent myth. Retrievd from http://money.cnn.com/2006/02/21/commentary/everyday/sahadi/index.htm

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