By Larson, Elizabeth
Insight on the News , Vol. 11, No. 16
You've come a long way, baby! In just a few decades, we have seen women stride into the workplace in record numbers, taking their place alongside men as construction workers and computer analysts, physicians
I 1- and politicians. And, with an initiative slated for the California ballot in 1996 that would end granting preferential treatment to anyone on the basis of sex (see Insight, Feb. 20), the end is in sight for what may be, ironically, the last universal barrier to women's advancement - affirmative action.
The California Civil Rights Initiative, or CCRI - which proposes that "Neither the State of California nor any of its political subdivisions or agents shall use race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin as a criterion for either discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual or group" - has begun a fight that will quickly assume a central role on the national stage. This battle promises to upset all our assumptions about affirmative action as a well-intentioned idea gone astray in a minefield of quotas and diatribes against heterosexual white males.
Supporters of CCRI claim the initiative would return government policy to the original intent of the civil-rights movement: judging people by the content of their character - or the facts on their resume - rather than by the color of their skin or their gender. They criticize the architects of affirmative action with shifting their focus from eradication of bias to ensuring equality of outcome. CCRI's opponents say passage of the measure would strip women and minorities of their major form of protection against prejudice in a continually discriminatory workplace. Equality of outcome, they seem to be saying, is even more important than equality of opportunity. According to a Los Angeles Times poll conducted in early March, Californians favor the CCRI 66 percent to 26 percent. When a Gallup Poll in February asked whether "affirmative-action programs are needed to help women overcome discrimination," 57 percent of women said no.
Affirmative action has, in fact, done more harm to women than all the good it promised in the heady days of its implementation. A woman pays a high price for a job received through affirmative action: the unspoken assumption that she really wasn't the best man for the job. Like a double scarlet letter on her double-breasted suit, the suspicions aroused by quotas usually are undeserved and thus all the more insidious. Resentment against an individual case of hiring by quota mushrooms into resentment against all members of the privileged group. Intended to reverse discrimination, affirmative action ends up breeding it.
Yet, to argue that women do not need affirmative action is not to deny the existence of individual cases of discrimination based on sex. The CCRI is not about whether there still are people who discriminate against women and minorities in the workplace or in society.
The rejection of affirmative action is, instead, a rejection of the idea that group rights supersede individual rights, that broad-based government policies are necessary because women cannot make it on their own and that legally enforced quotas are required every time statistics show an inequality in the workforce. Women struggled for too long to free themselves of the yoke of paternalism - legal and social ties subjugating them to their fathers, brothers and husbands - to turn so easily to another paternal figure, Uncle Sam. Yet this is exactly what many women are rushing to do. This ought to be abhorrent to true feminists, both as an attitude about women's abilities to achieve independence and as a means of undermining the real gains women have made on their own in recent decades.
Statistics used by feminists to prove the existence of ongoing discrimination against women in the workplace rely on an artificial wage gap. Women's median pay as a percentage of men's (which rose from 60 percent in 1980 to 72 percent in 1990) is depressed by including all women of all ages in all jobs. …