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viewpoint

A conversation on sex-based affirmative action

| Thursday, October 6, 2016

The following is a hypothetical conversation between Betty and Elena.

Betty: Hey, did you go to that meeting the other night?

Elena: The one about affirmative action and women?  Nah, I didn’t agree with their position.

Betty: Really? You know, I think we should rethink the affirmative action system; I agree with them.

Elena: How could you? Do you think women should just forever live as inferiors? I can’t believe this. I thought you stood for equality and fair play! I just don’t understand you people.

Betty: Elena, just hear me out. I understand this is a issue full of passion and emotion —

Elena: I don’t want to discuss this with a sexist!

Betty: This is the problem with politics these days, we simply can’t have a civil conversation. I want to hear your honest opinion on this, but also listen to mine. As peers and friends, both of us deserve a chance to express and defend our views. I respect you and your perspective, can you just do the same for me?

Elena: Fine.

Betty: OK, thanks. I just think that we shouldn’t leave the current affirmative action system unquestioned. Maybe it’s not the most effective solution to a situation both of us would consider a problem: unequal treatment of men and women, especially in the workplace.

Elena: Wait, you agree that it’s a problem?

Betty: Yes! I am in no way an advocate for the perpetuation of the imbalance between the sexes, especially if women feel oppressed. I just think affirmative action as it stands now is the wrong approach.

Elena: OK, I’m intrigued now, I didn’t know.

Betty: Just to begin, what do you believe is the end goal of affirmative action for women?

Elena: Well, that women feel free to pursue any career or position without fear of being discriminated against or treated differently, I guess.

Betty: OK, I agree. My problem with affirmative action is that while it might make progress towards that goal, it will never completely achieve it. In my opinion, as long as women are preferentially elevated to positions or careers, they are inherently being treated differently. In addition, it is no wonder they are still under higher scrutiny; if colleagues believe their new co-worker received preferential treatment, it is only natural for them to be suspicious of her abilities, especially if she was not necessarily the most qualified or best person for the job.

Elena: I guess that has some merit. But I think there are more goals for affirmative action. The system should strive towards equal pay for women for the same work. Also, in fields where an incredible majority is male, like law, engineering and architecture, women should gain a sizable representation. Not only are these disparities unacceptable in a country where supposedly everyone is created equal, but they discourage young women from pursuing careers in these fields, which perpetuates the problem.

Betty: I agree that women should not feel discouraged from entering fields where they might be the overwhelming minority. However, I think the solution to this should be from education rather than from hiring practices. Take a field with the opposite problem, like nursing. If equality among fields is such an inherent good, then we should be trying to get more men into nursing. But should we just give those nursing jobs to men who might not be as talented or caring? No — then our patient care and satisfaction would decrease, and our health-care system would suffer.

Elena: Yes, but …

Betty: So we shouldn’t necessarily install women in certain jobs just for the sake of parity. A better system would give women educational benefits, or other unique experiences, in order to adequately compete for the same jobs as men.

Elena: I can see where you’re coming from, but women still face underlying gender bias in hiring, and there is still a gender wage gap.

Betty: Those are valid points. Underlying gender bias is a problem. After few decades of affirmative action, there now should be enough women in underrepresented fields to promote hiring of more women and hopefully undo some of the bias. In addition, if we give extra education and other benefits to women, and they become even more competitive for jobs simply on their skills, some of this bias will come undone.  And I have one question about the wage gap — is money a main motivator behind these policies? If not, wouldn’t we also be pushing for more female car mechanics and welders?

Elena: If you put it that way, yes, I guess so. I’d phrase it, “women just haven’t historically been in positions of influence and power.”

Betty: OK, I guess I can live with that for now. I have to get going, but there’s one last thing that’s been on my mind. If women are striving for more independence and dignity through influential positions, doesn’t artificial advancement undercut that? I know a couple people for whom the thought of landing a high-profile internship because they are female gnaws at them and their confidence. It’s just thinking out loud, though.

Elena: Ooh, I want to explain my thoughts on that. But I really need to go, too — I’ll be late. I’m glad you made me talk to you, thanks.

Betty: No, thank you for giving me a chance to express my thoughts. Our country could sure use more of this.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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