And so I recently found myself dissatisfied with my own argument against affirmative action as a solution to unequal treatment of women in the workforce, though I thought I agreed with my conclusions. The argument that came to mind without much thought was:
Affirmative action attempts to correct an injustice, but it introduces new ones in the process. It disadvantages applicants who aren't targeted and treats women as though they can't succeed on their own merits. What’s needed to address this problem is societal change of gendered expectations and an insistence that laws consistently promote equality rather than special privilege for either side.But what if your main concern isn't the presence of any injustice, but the correction a specific injustice? In this case, does liberalism come up short in the quest for a more equal workforce?
Happily, this sort of thing motivates better thinking. After giving the problem the thought it deserves, I don't think affirmative action deserves a liberal endorsement, and here's why:
First, the problem of discrimination in the workplace is not as big as it’s often made out to be. Steve Horwitz’s video on the gender-wage gap explains that women aren't paid as little as 75 cents for each dollar that men are paid for the same work, but are choosing less lucrative occupations and making different choices about their work/life balance. For the reasons that women make these choices, they continue to be underrepresented in many high-earning jobs. That's a different sort of problem, and the one that affirmative action (AA) aims to solve.
Let’s assume that we can design a program that will get women into the jobs they're failing to secure now, and will be rolled back seamlessly once equality is achieved. If such a program can correct society's attitudes towards women, perhaps it's a compromise that pragmatic liberals ought to consider.
AA programs in schools have not performed as desired: they have not resulted in a reduced need for support for black students to secure spots over time, and they did not result in more diverse campuses than 'colour blind' regimes. Though the policies are intended to foster acceptance and tolerance, they can help perpetuate stereotypes and spur accusations of ‘reverse racism’. I can't think of a compelling reason that either workplaces or schools are exceptional, so I believe our expectations should be similar and we should be skeptical of claims that AA can solve problems caused by discrimination in the workforce that it hasn't in schools.
AA may be successful in catapulting women into management jobs in which men have been willing to work long hours, but it cannot change the expectations that come with the job (the long hours), nor the societal expectations for women (that they act as primary caregivers for children). Placing a woman into a job without changing these expectations puts the cart before the horse. It does not overcome the pressure on her to choose between family and career or the associated guilt.
If a woman is awarded a position because of AA, she was not the most qualified candidate (otherwise, she would have been awarded it without the policy). If she is more motivated by societal norms than the norms of the job, she is unlikely to meet the expectations of her position. AA sets her up to fail, and the stereotypes the policy aims to overcome (that women 'can't handle' that sort of work) to ring true. If the organization is forced to change the nature of the job to accommodate a female appointment without changing social norms, this has the same effect, and we should expect it to result in a drop in pay since the work ceases to be equal.
If she is qualified, the presence of AA may mean that the woman to whom a job is awarded will battle the charge that she didn't earn her spot. Shortcomings, real or perceived, may be disproportionately attributed to her gender, again contrary to the intentions of the policy. This battle may be won if she conforms to the norms of the job and produces exceptional work, but as Steve's video points out, making those choices already solves the problem.
Even if we assume away the unintended consequences for individuals, success in correcting disparities in outcome are bound to be recognized, at least in part, as the success of the program rather than the success of women in overcoming biases and discrimination. So long as the program is credited, women will not be able to claim, or even know the extent of, their victory.
Finally, our original assumption is a big one. Institutions are unlikely to be designed perfectly. Instead, their design will be subject to the social pressures that have resulted in the discrimination they're intended to correct. And once instituted, AA creates a vested interest (women who believe that they can secure jobs more easily because of the policy) that makes it difficult to reverse, regardless of whether it is successful or still needed, meaning that we may be left with needless discrimination, even if the original program was justified.
When there is injustice, the idea that a policy can solve the problem is appealing, but it's always more complicated than that. Even if a policy is merely ineffective, it may give the impression that something is being done and more action isn't needed. (This attitude may be partly to blame for a general sense of apathy and reluctance to acknowledge problems of discrimination today.)
What can feminists do, then? First, let's know what success has looked like in the past - the history of economic progress and liberation in the family and of women specifically within the market and society are important stories that we should be able to tell. Peacefully call out injustice - don't make excuses for it. Build something better – for instance, women succeeding in new work environments, like telecommuting and contract-based self employment, have the potential to be major stereotype busters. And don't settle for someone who makes gender an issue in relationship and household decisions. (Why would you want to when you realize what that says about them? Don't make excuses!)
That's the path to real change, not lip service or feel-good slogans. That's what matters, and we shouldn't settle for less.