The University Record, January 30, 1996

Senate Assembly debates affirmative action in gender issues

By Rebecca A. Doyle 

Editor's note: A version of the opposing sides of this question was printed in the Jan. 16 issue of the Record.

Senate Assembly members last week listened to opposing views on the role and effectiveness of affirmative action initiatives ongender issues within a higher education setting. Following the debate, Assembly members gave their own views and questioned the debaters.

Cynthia Marcelo, associate research scientist in the Department of Surgery, presented the positive view that she said she and Ruth Barnard, associate professor of nursing, had both crafted.

Marcelo answered a positive "yes" to the question of whether affirmative action is an appropriate way to achieve gender diversity.

"People tend to hire others who are like themselves," she said. White males who are firmly established in management and administration tend to hire other white males, she asserted, citing the mid-1995 glass ceiling report that showed that white males comprise only 48 percent of the work force but hold 95 percent of senior management positions.

"People think that to get help this way to achieve their goals is bad," she said. "Women want to make it on their own." But, she continued, affirmative action goals only assure that women and minorities get a chance to compete for positions that have been traditionally held by white males, not that those who are not qualified be chosen over those who were qualified.

Stacy G. Bike, assistant professor of chemical engineering and of macromolecular science and engineering, said that while affirmative action in gender equity endeavors might be an admirable sentiment, it sends the wrong message, a message that women "are not able to achieve these goals on their own." Bike said that she did not want her daughter to grow up thinking that she had to have help to achieve her ambitions.

"Affirmative action was originally construed not as a quota system, but today, as it is implemented, it is about percentages," she said.

Women need access, she said, not special privileges that would undermine their ability to do work by making others see them as incompetent and their self-confidence by making them believe the only reason they were hired was because of affirmative action.

Marcelo countered Bike's argument by saying that the most damaging thoughts are from women who say they don't want help.

"There is always someone who gives a call, a recommendation or something," she said, regardless of whether the candidate is a woman or not.

Bike agreed that everyone should be given equal opportunity. "I'm not arguing that," she said. "We just need a level playing field." She added that she knew women who had not taken jobs because of the demands of family and constraints of a dual career household.

Leo McNamara, professor of English language and literature, noted that the results of affirmative action-like programs have been disappointing and that adding to the programs is not logical.

Marcelo answered that affirmative action was not really done at the U-M, that it was all paperwork and not the spirit of the program. She said that resources are being withheld because there is "a subconscious belief by both sides (department administrators and women) that they don't deserve it."

Nicholas H. Steneck, professor of history, asked what tools other than affirmative action-like programs would be appropriate to achieve the University's goals.

Bike answered that special programs designed to give women privileges are not necessary, but that expectations of the job should "change for both young men and young women. Women generally feel they have more than 50 percent of dependent care responsibilities," she added.

The debate was one in a series of point/counterpoint discussions scheduled regularly throughout the year for presentation at Senate Assembly meetings.