Miss Larson, a writer in Los Angeles, has written about women in the workplace for Investor’s Business Daily, Reason, Insight, and other publications. A shorter version of this article was presented at a teach-in on affirmative action at the University of California-Los Angeles on May 4, 1995.
Today’s businesswoman needs affirmative action like a fish needs a bicycle.
With two important developments in the affirmative-action battle this past summer—the Supreme Court’s decision in Adarand v. Pena and the vote by the University of California Board of Regents to discontinue affirmative-action policies for student admissions—an optimist might assume this last universal barrier to women’s advancement in the workplace is finally about to topple. Yet victories over policies that are not just misguided but morally wrong must be won at the intellectual level as well as the practical.
Until now, the framework for discussing women in the workplace has been set by feminists—activists who will not be silent until 51 percent of every job classification is filled by women. These same radicals are willing to wave aside the achievements of the individual for the collectivist utopia of group success. Hence the urgency of the struggle over affirmative action at the intellectual level. Though they profess to—and perhaps believe it as well—these activists do not voice the beliefs and interests of most American women. It is time to reclaim the debate, reminding ourselves of the costs women have borne because of affirmative action as well as its danger to liberty.
The American working woman pays a high price for the position or promotion she receives from affirmative action: the unspoken assumption that she was not the “best man” for the job. At a recent teach-in on affirmative action at the University of California-Los Angeles, one of the participants defending affirmative action provided the best example of how the policy foments these very questions about competence.
Ellen DuBois, a full professor of history at UCLA and the author of such books on women’s history as Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in the U.S., 1848-1869, and the co-author of Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women’s History, began her comments by describing herself to the audience as “an affirmative-action baby—and proud of it.” She explained how her first job after graduate school was at the State University of New York, thanks to the school’s new affirmative-action policy, and continued with: “When I was first listening to the claims of the Civil Rights Initiative people, my parents were with me, and I said to them, `You know, I was an affirmative-action appointment.’ And they said, `Oh! But you deserved your job.’ And I thought that that sort of captured everything—the assumption that I, the one they know, deserve my job, but all the rest of these people who have affirmative-action positions don’t deserve their jobs. It’s just an accident that their dear daughter did.”
Suspicions about the merits of those who receive affirmative-action jobs are often undeserved, and thus all the more insidious. When the suspicions are held by one’s colleagues, rather than the general public, it is particularly divisive. Resentment against an individual case of hiring by quota ferments into resentment against all members of the privileged group. Intended to reverse discrimination, affirmative action eventually breeds it. The supporters of such a perverse system must answer the question of how successful—and more importantly, how moral—a system is that harms the very individuals it purports to help.
Unfortunately, concrete concerns and real-life reservations about affirmative action are commonly dismissed as anecdotal—and, indeed, it is difficult to quantify such arguments with numbers. So let us turn to the actual statistics used to “prove” the need for affirmative-action programs.
The Wage Gap
It turns out that supporters of affirmative action would have us level the playing field in all areas except the reporting of statistics. The infamous wage gap is so common a refrain that it approaches cliché. On closer inspection, however, the gap shown by all the “data” is neither as wide nor as unbridgeable as it is portrayed. Once you stop lumping all women of all ages in all fields together and using that resulting dollar figure as representative of the average American working woman, the gap narrows.
Comparing the wages of women and men of the same age, with similar experience, training, and years of uninterrupted time in their field yields a much more optimistic picture of how women fare today. Women under age 20 earn 92 percent as much as their male counterparts, women 21 to 24 earn 85 percent, and women 25 to 34 earn 78 percent. The younger the group, the slimmer the difference, suggesting that the wage gap will eventually disappear.
According to a report from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, the gaps that do still exist are likely due to the fewer continuous years women have been in the workforce. Women who have never interrupted their careers for any reason now earn at least 98 percent as much as their male counterparts.
In addition to painting a picture using tendentious numbers, many feminists labor under assumptions about the workplace and the meaning of success that are both unreasonable and unrealistic. They seem to believe that making an attempt at her job in and of itself guarantees a woman success. Yet the free market that has given women opportunities to work outside of the home that are unparalleled in history is the same free market that does not hand out “A’s” for effort. Just because a woman wants to be the first female CEO of her company does not mean she is entitled to the position, or that if she fails to make it that far up the corporate ladder it is someone else’s fault. Luck, drive, brains, connections, education, and, yes, looks, can all play a part in the promotions any worker—male, or female—receives.
A look at the role of physical attractiveness in determining wages exemplifies just how unrealistic feminists are when it comes to success in the workplace. Using American and Canadian subjects, economists Daniel Hamermesh and Jeff Biddle found that, even after adjusting for education and other factors, very attractive men and women earn about 5 percent more per hour than their merely average-looking colleagues. Plain women earn 5 percent less than the average-looking workers, and plain men 10 percent less. It seems that when the beauty myth becomes economic reality, men have even more to complain about than women.
Free-Market Success Stories
If feminists truly cared about women succeeding rather than constructing a social utopia, they would herald individual women who have genuine, free-market success stories to tell. These women are not running to government for affirmative-action privilege because they are too busy running companies.
Jane Hirsh is one such woman. Today one of the country’s wealthiest businesswomen, Hirsh founded Copley Pharmaceutical Inc. more than two decades ago because she wanted to be able to bring her children to work. After 21 years spent building her company into a generic-drug powerhouse, Hirsh sold a 51 percent stake in Copley to the German company Hoechst for $546 million in cash two years ago, retaining 37 percent of the shares for her family. Starting her own company “was the only way I could have a crib in my office,” Hirsh recalled.
Edith Gorter of Gorter Express Company has her own hard-work success story to tell. She was one of seven female entrepreneurs that author and businesswoman Joline Godfrey chose to highlight in her book on businesswomen, Our Wildest Dreams. Gorter took over the trucking company when her brother-in-law who had been running it died. (Her husband, who had no head for business, had wanted to sell the family company, founded by his father in 1910 with a horse and wagon.) When Edith Gorter took the company’s reins in 1972, Gorter Express had just one client, two trucks, and little else. Today, the company has hundreds of clients and about $2 million in rolling stock. Her daughter Lori seems the likely candidate to take over the company from her mother.
Little Caesar’s pizza chain, Mrs. Field’s Cookies, and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouses are a few of the better-known companies founded or run by women, but there are literally thousands of great free-market success stories like these. In fact, more than 6.5 million American businesses are owned by women. As a recent Associated Press story reported: “From 1991 to 1994, woman-owned businesses in the transportation, communications, wholesale trade, real estate and financial services grew nearly 20 percent, while construction firms grew 19 percent and manufacturing firms 13 percent, according to the National Foundation for Women Business Owners.” Since women start their own companies with half as much capital as men do, these entrepreneurs do not have the luxury of free time to complain about perceived workplace inequalities.
Some might argue that while entrepreneurial women have the opportunity to pick their field, most female workers are still forced to do “women’s work.” Although about two-thirds of working women still enter traditionally female fields such as nursing, teaching, and social work, a study from the Population Reference Bureau found “striking gains” for women in such traditionally male fields as medicine and law during the 1980s. The number of women lawyers more than tripled, and the number of female doctors doubled. Since the “decade of greed” was supposedly even worse for women than for men, this is good news.
Group versus Individual Rights
It is important to note that the debate about affirmative action is not a debate about the existence of individuals who discriminate on the basis of sex, nor should it be. Like the poor, the misogynist will always be with us. What differentiates the sexist society from a free society in which there is sexism is whether that prejudice is sanctioned by legislation and government policies or whether it is forced to the margins of society by general condemnation.
The affirmative-action debate is ultimately an argument about group versus individual rights. Affirmative action’s opponents understand that it is wrong, and not merely impractical, to restrain the individual for the sake of the group. They know from history that to ignore or denigrate the achievements of the individual is to head society down the road to chaos. The factional fighting that ensues is not of the beneficent type described by the Founders, wherein special interests jostle amongst themselves creating a balance from which everyone’s rights emerge intact. It is a splintering of communities born of contempt and resentment. Liberty has no friends in a world where success is seen as an entitlement, for the politically strong do what they can to obtain this “right” while the politically weak suffer what they must.
Feminists ought to be particularly attuned to the dangers of relying on a central force or figure for support and protection. Women struggled far too long to free themselves from paternalism to hold the hand of Uncle Sam now. An eagerness to rely on the government is an affront to what feminism should stand for. It betrays a lack of confidence in women’s abilities to achieve financial and personal independence, and it undermines the real gains women have made in the workplace in recent decades.
As with any group that considers itself the vanguard of a brave new world, feminists want immediate change—and affirmative-action programs with the force of bureaucratic edict promise it to them. Yet utopias are malleable things. Just as the dream of a color-blind society has become the reality of a color-coded one since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the goal of equal opportunity has become the mirage of equal outcome. A system in which less than 5 percent of construction jobs are held by women—even though women own almost as many construction companies as men—is a system which, to many feminists, has failed the fairer sex.
But try telling that to someone like Edith Gorter—who hasn’t just made it in a “man’s world”; she’s made it in a man’s field, trucking. Where are the feminists to praise strong, independent women when you need them? Running after yet another gift from the government sugar daddy.