The University Record, January 16, 1996

Is Affirmative Action for Women an Appropriate Instrument for Achieving Gender Equity?


By Ruth Barnard
School of Nursing

 Yes, affirmative action was and is needed to achieve full gender equity in employment. Despite 30 years of non-discrimination law, gender prejudice and discrimination still persist. Let's just look at the facts. Comparably qualified women still make less money than men. The proportion of women in regular University of Michigan faculty appointments is low, and most are in the lower paid non-tenured positions. Of the 10 University of Michigan executive officers, only two are women.

Women have made inroads into previously all-male bastions like the Supreme Court and the ranks of astronauts. But at The University of Michigan, the proportion of tenure-track women professors has changed little. In 1984, 16.6 percent of tenure-track faculty were women. Despite affirmative action being the law, in 1994 this had increased to only 21 percent, with most of the increase at the assistant professor level.

The supply of women was certainly available in the pipeline. At least since 1979, women comprised over 30 percent of Ph.D. graduates in the U.S. By 1990, this proportion had increased to 42.3 percent.

It is important to know what affirmative action is. Universities are required to take affirmative action to attract qualified women and minority candidates to applicant pools for positions in underutilized areas. The affirmative action process is accomplished by vigorously seeking a diverse pool of candidates, by a consistent and fair hiring process, and then by hiring the best qualified candidate regardless of race or gender.

There are no quotas, nor preferential hiring practices, imposed by affirmative action. Hiring people because of ethnicity or gender regardless of qualifications has never been sanctioned. The purpose of the regulations is to provide equal opportunity (or a level playing field) for persons who are seeking positions. Thus, affirmative action is a means to guarantee serious consideration of persons qualified for the position. Both hiring practices and promotion decisions require attention to ensuring openness and fairness. Achieving a diverse workforce is of paramount importance in today's global economy.

In most areas of society, women must overcome male advantage and conferred male dominance. Most men are not even aware of their privilege. The predominately white male leadership with its mentoring and networking already in place leaves women at a disadvantage. As more women and minorities enter the workforce, there has been increased competition for jobs. The current and recent downsizing of workforces compounds the problem by decreasing the numbers and types of jobs available. Affirmative action becomes a scapegoat because those who fail to get a job claim unqualified women and minorities have taken their jobs.

Education is the key to understanding and to obtaining equal opportunity for all members of our society. Affirmative action must be a strategy in our centers of learning. Academia has a special responsibility to prepare people to achieve in our complex society. To do this, our teachers and researchers must be diverse. Currently, our faculty numbers do not reflect our population in diversity and complexity, even though trained women and minorities are in the workforce and hiring pool. It is to meet this responsibility that affirmative action is needed in the hiring and promotional activities of our faculty.

Affirmative action is seeing that qualified people, including women and minorities, are in the candidate pool. Affirmative action is about hiring the most qualified person. Equal opportunity and fair consideration should be practiced, not because of rules or regulations, but because equal opportunity and fair consideration are among the fundamental values upon which our country is built.



By Stacy G. Bike
Department of Chemical Engineering


I have been asked by SACUA to prepare a statement contrary to the following question: "Is affirmative action for women an appropriate instrument for achieving gender equity?" The statement that follows is meant to invoke critical thinking and initiate a thoughtful dialogue about this important issue.

Let me begin by defining affirmative action. According to Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, affirmative action is "an active effort to improve the employment or educational opportunities of members of minority groups and women." I will focus specifically on the role of affirmative action in achieving gender equity in the faculty at the University.

The role of affirmative action in achieving gender (and racial) equity has recently been questioned in academia and in society as a whole. Affirmative action programs have been used to construct a faculty and a student body whose compositions mirror the population at large. As the relative proportion of women increases on this campus, it is now the time to ask if affirmative action was (and is) the appropriate instrument to achieve this equality---that is, do the means justify the ends?

Before I address this question, let's consider the following situation. Suppose that I have been elected the president of the United States or, for that matter, have been appointed as president of the University of Michigan. It would not be in my best interest to have risen to these positions on the basis of special privileges without being unquestionably qualified for the positions. If it is perceived that I received these positions simply because I am a woman, I would not have the support of my constituents and colleagues.

Herein lies the problem. Yes, there probably was discrimination against women in gaining faculty positions in higher education---and in pursuing higher education in general. And yes, special programs ("affirmative action") were probably required to encourage women to assume faculty careers, especially in traditionally male-dominated fields like engineering. But these programs have now undermined their initial goals. The mere existence of affirmative action programs can potentially raise questions about the ability of women hired into faculty positions, regardless of whether or not these women were hired as a result of such programs. And if a person's ability is questioned, then her success will never be taken seriously---or worse, she will doubt her own success.

Overlying all of this is a larger problem. In many fields the relative proportion of women decreases during each stage of the educational process so that the relative proportion of women who choose to pursue a faculty career in a given field is much less than those who choose to pursue an undergraduate degree in that field. This is a problem that cannot be "fixed" solely by affirmative action. The expectations of significant research efforts coupled with teaching and service can be overwhelming to younger women---and men---with significant dependent care responsibilities, especially in two-career families. Indeed, the problem here is the requirements of the position. Not surprisingly, women comprise the majority of the lecturers at the University, likely the result of the reduced demands of this position relative to a tenured faculty position.

Affirmative action is not the solution to the problem. This problem is not the result of a structural bias in the system rather, this problem transcends gender and the solution to this problem will require a re-evaluation of the requirements of the tenured faculty position.