Affirmative Action: Myths versus Reality

Affirmative Action: Myth versus Reality

Myth: Women don't need affirmative action any more.
Reality: Though women have made gains in the last 30 years, they remain severely underrepresented in most nontraditional professional occupations as well as blue-collar trades. The U.S. Department of Labor's Glass Ceiling Commission Report (1995) states that, while white men are only 43 percent of the Fortune 2000 work force, they hold 95 percent of the senior management jobs. In addition, women are only 8.6 percent of all engineers, less than one percent of carpenters, 23 percent of lawyers, 16 percent of police, and 3.7 percent of firefighters. White men are 33 percent of the U.S. population, but 65 percent of physicians, 71 percent of lawyers, 80 percent of tenured professors, and 94 percent of school superintendents.

Myth: Under affirmative action, minorities and women receive preferences.
Reality: Affirmative action does not require preferences, nor do women and minorities assume that they will be given preference. Race, gender, and national origin are factors that can be considered when hiring or accepting qualified applicants. Hiring qualified women and minorities is similar to the preferences given to veterans in hiring and to children of alumni in college admissions. There are also other preferences used in selecting qualified candidates. For example, when private colleges and universities value geographic diversity on their campuses, an out-of-state student may be admitted before an in-state student. Some colleges and universities consider athletic abilities and/or evidence of leadership skills in addition to academic qualifications.

Myth: Affirmative action is really quotas.
Reality: Affirmative action provides women and minorities with full educational and workplace opportunities. Under existing law, quotas are illegal. Federal contractors are required to establish goals and timetables, and to make a good- faith effort to meet them. Race, national origin, and gender are among several factors to be considered, but relevant and valid job or educational qualifications are not to be compromised. Further, the Supreme Court has made clear that affirmative action or programs that claim to be affirmative action are illegal if: (1) an unqualified person receives benefits over a qualified one; (2) numerical goals are so strict that the plan lacks reasonable flexibility; (3) the numerical goals bear no relationship to the available pool of qualified candidates and could therefore become quotas; (4) the plan is not fixed in length; or (5) innocent bystanders are impermissibly harmed.

Myth: Affirmative action leads to discrimination against white men.
Reality: Evidence demonstrates that discrimination against white men is rare. For example, of the 91,000 employment discrimination cases before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, approximately 3% percent are discrimination cases against white men. Further, a study conducted by Rutgers University and commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor (1995) found that discrimination against white men is not a significant problem in employment and that a "high proportion" of claims brought by white men are "without merit."
Affirmative action provides the employer with the largest pool of qualified applicants from which to choose.

Myth: Affirmative action programs that aid the economically disadvantaged (i.e., needs-based programs) are enough to address discrimination.
Reality: Women and minorities face discrimination as they climb the corporate ladder and bump up against the "glass ceiling." For example, the U.S. Department of Labor's Glass Ceiling Commission Report (1995) states that while white men are only 43 percent of the Fortune 2000 work force, they hold 95 percent of the senior management jobs. Affirmative action programs take positive, pro-active steps to prevent discrimination at all levels of employment. Affirmative action based on need would fail to break down barriers that women and minorities experience in the workplace, especially at higher levels.

Myth: Unqualified individuals are being hired and promoted for the sake of diversity/affirmative action.
Reality: Only affirmative action plans that do not compromise valid job or educational qualifications are lawful. Plans must be flexible, realistic, reviewable, and fair. The Supreme Court has found that there are at least two permissible bases for voluntary affirmative action by employers under Title VII: (1) to remedy a clear and convincing history of past discrimination by the employer or union, and (2) to cure a manifest imbalance in the employer's work force. Thus, affirmative action programs are intended to hire the most qualified individuals, while at the same time achieving equality of opportunity for all.

Myth: Affirmative action does not have a place in government contracts.
Reality: Congress has, in a bipartisan fashion, created federal procurement programs to counter the effects of discrimination that have raised artificial barriers to the formation, development, and utilization of businesses owned by disadvantaged individuals, including women and minorities. Only qualified businesses can participate in these procurement programs. Federal law establishes several overall, national goals to encourage broader participation in federal procurement: 20 percent for small businesses, five percent for small disadvantaged businesses, and five percent for women-owned businesses. The goals are flexible and reflect an aspiration, not a guarantee that they will be achieved. With these goals, women and minority-owned business have begun to expand opportunity for women and minority contractors. From 1982 to 1991, the dollar volume of federal contracts increased by 200 percent to women-owned firms and 125 percent to minority-owned firms. However, these programs are still needed because while minorities own almost nine percent of all businesses and women own 34 percent of all businesses, together minorities and women receive only about 8.8 percent of the over $200 billion in federal contract awards. Further, without these programs the share of contracts to women- and minority-owned businesses will fall drastically. For example, after the 1989 Croson decision invalidating the minority contracting program in Richmond, Virginia, the share of contracting dollars going to minority-owned firms in Richmond fell from 38.5 percent to 2.2 percent.

Myth: Title VII alone is sufficient to address discrimination.
Reality: Affirmative action means taking positive, proactive, and preemptive steps to root out discrimination, rather than waiting for after-the-fact litigation. Title VII addresses discrimination, but it does so only after an instance of discrimination has been claimed. Affirmative action policies are a means to end discrimination in a far less costly and disruptive way than protracted litigation.

Myth: Underrepresentation of minorities and women in the corporate world (or other high-paying jobs) is not due to discrimination.
Reality: Discrimination is not the sole reason for the lack of women and minorities in the corporate world. However, we must deal with past and present discrimination. A study of the 1982 Stanford MBA graduating class found that, in 1992, 16 percent of the men held CEO titles compared to two percent of the women. Twenty-three percent of men become corporate vice presidents, but only 10 percent of the women, while 15 percent of men served as directors, compared to eight percent of the women. Barriers to employment and promotion still exist for women and minorities. Affirmative action opens the doors to opportunity and advancement.

Myth: The so-called earnings gap between men and women has closed significantly in recent years; therefore, affirmative action is no longer needed to achieve pay equity.
Reality: In 1993, the total amount of wages women lost due to pay inequity was nearly $100 billion. The average woman loses approximately $420,000 over a lifetime due to unequal pay practices. Working women still earn just over 70 cents for every dollar men earn. Much of this wage gap is due to the fact that women are still segregated into traditionally female-dominated jobs where wages are low. In 1993, 61 percent of all employed women worked in technical/sales, service, and administrative support/clerical positions, while only 28 percent of women worked in higher-paying managerial and professional fields. Further, the pay gap exists even within the same occupation. In 86 occupations tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women earn 20 to 35 percent less than men. For example, female college professors earn 77.1 percent of male professors' wages. Women public relations specialists earn 76.7 percent of their male counterparts' wages. Women in securities and financial services earn 65.6 percent of men's wages.

Myth: Most analyses that point to wage differentials between men and women do not take into account differences in hours worked and years of uninterrupted work experience between the sexes. Female earnings are depressed because women work, on average, fewer hours per week than men and have more interruptions over their working lives than do men.
Reality: The wage inequities most often cited are based on Department of Labor and Census Bureau data on year-round, full-time workers who have a permanent attachment to the work force. This data does not compare full-time male workers to part-time female workers, nor does it compare permanent workers to part-time and contingent workers.

This information was obtained from the American Association of University Women