I. Affirmative Action is a Symptom
Affirmative action by definition is “action favouring those who tend to suffer from discrimination,” or as it is more succinctly referred to in the UK, it is “positive discrimination.” On June 24th, the Supreme Court of the United States ruffled some feathers on the topic of affirmative action as it applies to the role of race in college admissions. (One of the several times the Supreme Court has ruffled feathers this week, actually.) A white applicant to the University of Texas claimed that she was not granted admission while minority students with inferior academic records got in – due to the effect of affirmative action, she claimed. The court ruled that as before, colleges can continue using race as a factor in applications; as before, they must keep this criterion “narrow and flexible,” and it cannot make-or-break the admission decision; however, the added caveat is that now colleges must first prove that using race is essential in the admission decision in order to remain diverse as an institution.
This sparked controversy; some say that affirmative action is outdated and no longer relevant, and we must make a full reversal and not a partial one. Yet others say that this partial “step back” gives too much leniency to institutions and potentially allows them to discriminate more easily. Wherever you land on this particular political spectrum, only one conclusion can be drawn with certainty from the whole manifest: even in the context of current times, the fact that affirmative action is such a sensitive topic proves that society does discriminate.
The perceived need for affirmative action is a symptom that exposes the societal stigma of holding equal individuals in unequal regard.
II. Affirmative Action is a Band-Aid Fix
Everybody is familiar with the concept of the Glass Ceiling. It is mostly attributed to the phenomenon that women experience as professionals. There is a level when it is simply more difficult to advance further “up the ladder” in business and in politics because the climber is a woman. Of course, the Glass Ceiling can be broken by ambitious minds but the mere fact that it is a ceiling and that it needs breaking is another major symptom of holding equal individuals in unequal regard.
As pointed out in this documentary on portrayal of women in media and their resulting status in society: women are 51% of the population of the United States, and 17% of Congress. We will not reach equality in the next 500 years with the rate at which we are moving.
If I see that only two out of sixteen directors on the Board of a nationally esteemed company are women – is affirmative action the answer? Perhaps not. Going back to the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas suggests that affirmative action is “segregationist.” He draws on personal experience and he is completely correct: we are trying to combat segregation with segregation. Furthermore this might hurt the recipients of this “positive” segregation later on. If it is known that you are the recipient of affirmative action, would someone doubt your actual credibility in your career path – disadvantaged status aside? Not outright. But if I were applying for a management role, I would want to be assured that I will receive the role because of my traits and skills, not because I am a woman and deserve a helping hand. I would want my professional network to be assured of the same fact.
Again, in this case – affirmative action is a band-aid response, and the need to use it is only a symptom of a deeper problem.
III. Feminism Is Not Only for Work
Stepping away from the career challenges that women face, a plethora of clues emerge which reveal that our society’s mindset is systemically corrupted. These sound like strong words but this is only because we tend to accept the realities of our surroundings as normal. The media’s lack of respect towards women is notorious and discussed at length in countless works, so rather than elaborating further I will leave it up to the reader to consider at leisure. The fact that many generations of girls have now grown up playing with dolls which are unrealistically proportioned but at the same time idealized, and the fact that this clearly psychologically damaging but shows no signs of changing. The fact that no woman I know experiences “PMS” to the nearly crippling point that has come to be the caricatured expectation. As well, the not insignificant fact that we are willing to question the victim of rape before we question the criminal (recall the Fox News coverage on the Steubenville case a few months back). We would never do this to a victim of a different type of crime.
IV. Actions, Then Words
I spent most of my life believing that ignoring these constraints was the ultimate fix. As reality sets in, it must be admitted that simply ignoring barriers will make no long term impact in breaking them down.
We need women to continue to become strong leaders, negotiators, managers, politicians, thinkers, writers, engineers, chemists, inventors, mentors, teachers, artists, and scholars; these women must then speak loudly and clearly about their experience and make their presence known. For it is a fact that these women will be a minority and, frankly, they need to create the extra noise to establish their presence in a meaningful way. Through the mediums of speech, mentorship, writing, and leading by example, they will need to reach out directly to women and girls younger than them.
And ultimately, they will need to show that the height of achievement was accomplished through their intelligence, good will, worldliness, ambition, and enthusiasm – and not because they were held back or pushed forward based on the simple peripheral matter of gender.
I went to school with women like these and I now work with women like these. Incredible stories are already being told, and women with astounding ambition are all around us. My sincere hope is that in my lifetime, we will eradicate the need to consider gender as a defining characteristic in assessing the value of an individual professionally and personally. But first we need to recognize that this is a journey yet to be completed.