Friday, March 24, 2006

Feminism vs. Affirmative Action

Finally, the two tense liberal stalwart ideologies collide! Dr. Helen describes the situation, as it relates to undergraduate admissions. Feminists will be quick to point out pay parity, but the idea that that will remain in place now that men make up a smaller and smaller minority of the degree-seeking population is dubious. And this problem is going to keep getting worse as the lion's share of college admission applications come from women. If the Universities are to maintain the balance and diversity required by affirmative action policies, then this means the hammer comes down on accomplished women. This puts the boosters of affirmative action in a very awkward position, as it does feminists.

Feminists would probably be inclined to argue that this is a clear case of discrimination against women, as qualified women are not being admitted as often as less-qualified men. This would be a tough argument to make, though, as a majority of the students in most colleges are becoming or have already become female. So, making such an argument would be an example of that great conservative-conjured boogeyman: reverse discrimination, whereas the majority is discriminated against in favor of the minority. Also, a feminist argument of this kind would inherently be making an argument AGAINST diversity, at least where gender is concerned. It would have to make the argument that merit should be the deciding factor, not gender characteristics. Again, this starts to sound like an actual conservative argument. For one, that doesn't grate on me at all because I think Feminism has a great deal of conservative tendencies (but again, that depends on how you define conservative, in this case I simply mean arguments usually made by those considered political conservative, whether they have conservative ideological bases or not). So, if one is to argue the women in this picture are being treated unfairly or discriminated against, one essentially has to make an argument against diversity and against reverse-discrimination. These are not arguments that are typically associated with feminism, but would apply in this case.

Then there's those who would be pro-affirmative action. If you defend the basis of gender diversity, you clearly have to argue for more stringent standards to be applied to women than to men, and go anti-feminist. If you believe that an undergraduate class should be composed of relatively near-equal amounts of men and women, then you are stuck dealing with a much smaller applicant pool for men than women. Ergo, women have to be more thoroughly scrutinized than men when applying. This, in fact, is advocating reverse discrimination against women, and in favor of diversity with special treatment over equal treatment.

Here's what I think will be the counterargument to what I'm writing here. There will be some sort of argument about how the only people getting screwed over here are white males if we just go ahead and uphold the feminist side of things and treat the women the same as men. Drastically more women would be enrolled, and that would be fine. But let's not forget that this problem crosses ethnic and racial divides. It would not just be white men here, but also african american men, asian men, and hispanic men as the according groups of women were accepted at much higher rates. And they would be, as the fact that more women go to college and apply to college is a tendency that holds across different ethnic and racial categories (though some more than others). So, in effect, if you try to conflate affirmative action and feminism to resolve that tension, you would end up saying something like we defend diversity, but not on the basis of gender. But then, why defend on the other bases and NOT gender?

Clearly this is no easy issue for those who want to be feminist and support some form of affirmative action. One is left saying affirmative action is okay, and diversity is good, but not when it comes to gender, or that gender should not be treated the same. But why only leave gender aside and consider other factors as meaningful to diversity? It makes no real logical sense. Of course, conservatives have an easy time with this. They would side with a more pure feminist argument and state that this is clear evidence of reverse discrimination and thus affirmative action should be eliminated. The result of which would have women dominating undergraduate cohorts based on the merits.

ADDENDUM: Maybe I should say what my intention is here. But I'm saving it for this bit at the end. I actually believe this case is firm evidence for why we need to rethink the concept of affirmative action. I don't think, nor have I for awhile, that it should be based on ethnic, racial, national, or gender status. I think it should be based on the thing that gets to the core of the matter: socio-economics. This, undoubtedly, is a heretical idea to the left and uncomfortable for the right (because it smacks of the dreaded "class warfare.") So long as we based affirmative action on things like race or nationality or ethnicity, we have to lump things like gender or any other cultural ingredient because it becomes a cultural thing, and making an argument to include some cultural things as important for diversity and others as not becomes too much of a contortionist line-drawing exercise. It's better to just get at the core of the matter, and examine the real issue: what resources did the person have available (in terms of income) during their previous education and life? That's what affirmative action would be best-served focusing on. I will add that I still don't think anyone who takes a feminist argument seriously can defend the current state of affirmative action, because it leads to reverse discrimination against women.