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Affirmative Action's Long Record

By Judy Mann
Wednesday, November 1, 1995; Page F12

opinion
I heard an interesting argument against affirmative action the other day. Put briefly, it boiled down to this: Affirmative action isn't necessary anymore, and besides, it hasn't worked well enough to justify the rancor it is generating.

Overwhelmingly, when people talk about affirmative action, they discuss it in terms of race. But some form of affirmative action has helped every group that has been marginalized since Europeans settled this continent, slaughtered Native Americans and sanctified the rule of white men.

After almost 20 years of litigation, the courts have established a workable framework for affirmative action in which quotas are not permitted but goals and timetables are, people cannot be displaced from jobs, unqualified people cannot be given preferential treatment and any white man who feels he is the victim of discrimination can sue.

The purpose of affirmative action is to redress past and present discrimination and to promote equal opportunities for women, minorities and people with disabilities. The idea is to create a climate in which merit will prevail. Thus, affirmative action in employment has meant that qualified women are sought and recruited so that they will be in the mix when hiring and promotional decisions are made.

What's been accomplished, and what has not? The elimination of many sex-based barriers in education is one of affirmative action's best success stories. Women now receive about half of all bachelor's and master's degrees. But they receive only a third of the doctorate and "first professional" (medical, law, theology) degrees and continue to lag in math, engineering and the physical sciences. In 1992, for example, women received 15.4 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees and 9.6 percent of doctorate degrees in engineering.

Women make up nearly half the work force today, but they continue to be clustered in lower-paying jobs that have traditionally been held by women. In 1991, one in four women who worked was in administration support jobs. Women make up 99.3 percent of dental hygienists but only 10.5 percent of dentists.

The glass ceiling – that invisible barrier that keeps women from breaking through to the top – is everywhere. The Federal Glass Ceiling Commission's report issued in March found that 95 to 97 percent of the senior managers in Fortune 1000 industrial companies and Fortune 500 companies are men. Women are 48 percent of all journalists, but they hold only 6 percent of the top jobs. They are 23 percent of the lawyers but only 11 percent of law firm partners.

Affirmative action has revolutionized higher education, the best predictor of economic success. A study of the Federal Contract Compliance program, which requires larger federal contractors to make a good-faith effort to meet goals and timetables for hiring and promoting minorities and women, found that female employment rose 15.2 percent at those companies and only 2.2 percent elsewhere. Those women were paid better than women at other companies.

In 1983, women made up 9.4 percent of the nation's police force. A decade later, that number rose to 16 percent. Having more women on the force hasn't benefited just women; it has made police more responsive to domestic abuse, according to studies.

Affirmative action has had a major effect on the growth of women-owned businesses, which have increased by more than 57 percent since 1982, providing jobs for white men as well as for women and minorities.

The greatest myth about affirmative action is that it provides preferential treatment to disadvantaged groups. In fact, it is a remedy for the preferential treatment white men have traditionally received and continue to enjoy. In 1993, women made, on average, only 71.5 cents for every dollar made by men. One study found that once adjustments were made for education, experience and other factors, the wage gap was approximately 85 percent. Better, certainly, than the 60 percent gap we saw through the mid-1970s, but nowhere near equal. The gap has closed partly because of a decline in the earnings of less-skilled white men, a factor that is surely contributing to the backlash against affirmative action.

But let us get one thing straight: One group – white men – still is getting the best jobs and the highest pay even though it represents less than half the work force. As long as that's the case, we will need affirmative action to ensure that all of us enjoy a fair chance to achieve success.

White men may be feeling rancor these days, and I guess the best thing to say to them is: "Welcome to the club." Women and minorities have been shut out of jobs and paid less for as long as they can remember: They have been feeling rancor for a very long time.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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