Path to Equality - August 2001

Denver Women's Commission
Path to Equality - August 2001

August 1, 2001
prepared by Chaer Robert
for Colorado Woman News

Affirmative Action -- Path to Equality

Do you favor or oppose laws that give women and minorities an equal opportunity to compete for jobs and education? The Center for Policy alternatives found in a 1996 poll that 77% of Americans favor such laws. Yet when they asked how many favored or opposed affirmative action, support dropped to 48%. How do we get to equality?

The past 30 years have seen tremendous progress for women:

  • The percentage of women doctors rose from 10% to 26%
  • The percentage of women lawyers rose from 3% to 25%
  • In 1971, 1% of dentistry degrees were awarded to women, by 1996, they received 36% of dentistry degrees
  • The number of women business owners has increased from 402,200 to 8 million, or from about .4% of companies to 8.5% of companies

Other benchmarks point to continuing inequality:

  • Only 2.2% of federal contract dollars, and 5% of private sector contracts go to women-owned businesses
  • In 1971 women earned 59c to the dollar earned by men. The 1999 figure is 72c. The gap has narrowed in large part to the inflation-adjusted drop in men's earnings. Women of color average 59c to each dollar earned by white males.
  • for a woman employed full time, year round is $26,324
  • Two out of every three working women have no pension

How would you address these issues--through outreach, training, mentoring, encouragement? Virtually any suggestion beyond passivity and acceptance of inequality, is "affirmative action". Women, in particular, have benefited from affirmative action. More women are pursuing advanced education, the professions, and business ownership.

Greater disparity in most areas remains along racial and ethnic lines. Women have fought restrictive sex roles, prejudice, law and policies. Yet many women have been able to use the contacts, information and resources within their social circles to leverage their advancement. For most people of color, there are similar barriers, but less access to contacts and other resources. For example:

  • The median net worth of a white family is $81,700
  • The median net worth of a African American family is $10,000
  • The median net worth of a Latino family is $5,520

The societal value of "individual responsibility" would have us pretend that discrimination is not a social problem, but an indicator of a person's lack of effort. If we really wanted a true "level playing field", we would have a 100% inheritance tax, assign children to schools by lottery, and require mixed income housing in every neighborhood.

This year the State Legislature considered Rep. Shawn Mitchell's HCR 1003 -- a proposed referrendum seeking to abolish all discrimination and "preferences" by state and local government, except as required by the federal government or when a bona fide qualification necessary for the normal operation of government. This proposal may reemerge as a ballot initiative.

One would be led to believe women get special treatment by the state. Women and people of color make up more than 60% of the state workforce, but hold only 28% of manager level positions. A 1996 state study showed that 99% of state construction contracts over $500,000 went to Anglo male owned businesses. From 1992 -- 1995, the state awarded less than 2% of all professional services contracts to women, although women owned almost 50% of the available firms. "Quotas" and "preferences" are terms used by opponents to stir opposition to affirmative action. Quotas are illegal and not a part of affirmative action. If passed, such a ballot issue could eliminate programs to encourage girls to study math and science, programs to mentor engineering students of color, efforts to develop solution to inequities in accessing state contracts, and community outreach beyond word of mouth to recruit job applicants.

As women advance in many areas, it can be tempting to cave into criticism that affirmative action is no longer needed. Whether or not we have directly benefited from affirmative action in our careers or education, we all benefit as society incorporates the idea that women have power. Women are not so easily ignored and discounted. Passivity is not the path to equality.