Women and Job Preferences

March 14, 1995|By JOANNE JACOBS

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA — San Jose, California. -- I was an affirmative-action hire, back in 1978. As a result, I became the first woman on my newspaper's editorial board.

Was I qualified? I certainly didn't have much experience. My boss took a chance on me. I like to think it paid off for him, as well as for me. At any rate, I made the editorial board safe for women, who now make up half the editorial-pages staff.

Defenders of affirmative action have a new strategy: Consider the ladies. A liberal coalition has kicked off a campaign to cast affirmative action as a gender issue rather than a racial issue. Affirmative action is essential for women's advancement, argued feminist leaders. ''Women will not quietly accept a rollback of our rights that have been part of the American scene for over a generation,'' said Katherine Spillar of the Feminist Majority. It's a smart, though doomed, strategy.

The smart part is that women (if not feminists) are a majority of the population. If women were persuaded that affirmative action guarantees not only our benefits but also our ''rights,'' public thinking would shift dramatically. Poll data suggest that the majority of Americans accept preferences for women in jobs and college admissions; most are deeply hostile to preferences for minority-group members.

The doomed part is that most white women don't think they'd lose their rights or their jobs if affirmative action ceased to exist; some are concerned about the job prospects of their white male husbands.

Affirmative action used to mean reaching out to people excluded from opportunities by overt discrimination or old-boy networks, giving everyone a chance to compete fairly. Now it means judging members of previously excluded groups by different, generally lower, standards than others.

Are women less able to compete in 1995 because of past discrimination? Certainly not women under the age of 45.

In the past, affirmative action helped women -- especially educated, middle-class women -- enter occupations previously reserved for men. Some argue that affirmative action primarily benefited white women who were most prepared to take advantage of opportunities, and most likely to have connections to powerful men. Certainly, it appears that affirmative action has done most for those who needed it least. It has opened doors; it has not built ladders.

While women haven't achieved parity in income or in top executive ranks or in all careers, affirmative action can provide little help in achieving those goals in the future.

In education, affirmative action already is passe. Women don't need to be judged by different standards to get into college, and they're not. Females earn higher high school grades than males, and are more likely to attend college.

Women are underrepresented in the mathematical sciences and in engineering studies. An affirmative-action program that admitted calculus-deficient women to physics class would do them no favor. The solution is not changing the standards; it's persuading more girls to take more math in high school.

Women do worry about workplace equity, but here, too, affirmative action isn't likely to play much of a role. The much-discussed ''glass ceiling'' for women in business is related to two factors: Family and calculus.

Women are more likely than men to put family needs ahead of career advancement. These choices have consequences. Women who work more at home and less at work don't get to be CEO. Marcia Clark, chief prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson case, illustrates the trade-offs. Because of her professional success, she may lose custody of her children to her ex-husband, who works less demanding hours. (Of course, there should be a shared-custody solution.)

The other factor that keeps businesswomen under the glass ceiling is insufficient math training. Studies show that women who break through the glass took calculus in college; women with less math don't make it to the top. Women can prepare themselves to compete on an equal basis by getting the same academic training as their male colleagues.

Corporations are talking ''diversity'' these days, mostly for reasons of self-interest. Executives know it's impossible to build a viable all-white, all-male work force; they want people who can sell to increasingly diverse markets and understand increasingly diverse customers. Certainly, women are now an integral part of the work force, essential to the success of virtually every company. Women's gains are not going to be rolled back. We're in too far.

The line now being drawn between the successful and the unsuccessful has nothing to do with gender or race or ethnicity or citizenship. It is a line between the well-educated and the poorly educated. Women can move to the right side of the line without asking for preferences based on gender, or accepting the affirmative-action stigma.

Joanne Jacobs is a columnist for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News.

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