Affirmative Action in the Workplace: Pros, Cons & Examples

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  • 0:02 Definition and Overview
  • 2:07 Arguments in Favor
  • 3:23 Arguments Against
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Orin Davis
This lesson provides you with an overview of affirmative action in the workplace, including its pros and cons. We'll also look at some examples of how affirmative action helps or hurts in the workplace.

Definition and Overview

Few topics are debated as widely as affirmative action, especially as sound arguments exist both for and against the practice. Affirmative action involves showing a preference for selecting and/or promoting members of a demographic or minority group with a history of discrimination. These groups can include those based on ethnicity, gender, or race. Legally, such a preference may be acted upon only when candidates are comparable in quality.

At the federal level, the roots of affirmative action can be found in an executive order issued by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, as well as President Lyndon B. Johnson's Civil Rights Act of 1964. Both Presidents Nixon and Carter issued their own executive affirmative action orders, which built upon Kennedy's original guidelines and provided additional opportunities and protection for women. During the 1980s, the anti-affirmative action movement failed to reverse the executive orders; however, no further legislation or orders were approved. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton advocated a 'mend it, don't end it' policy.

Debates about affirmative action in the workplace typically focus on three main issues:

  • Should employers show a preference for candidates based on demographics?
  • To what extent should preferences overshadow differences in candidate quality?
  • Can affirmative action help to eliminate demographically-based discrimination?

In weighing the pros and cons of affirmative action, we must also answer the question: What constitutes a history of discrimination? The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not include references to specific demographic groups and minorities, such as African Americans and women. Additionally, while Asians and Jews have experienced significant discrimination in the United States over time, they're infrequently mentioned in relation to affirmative action efforts. Let's take a look at some of the arguments both for and against affirmative action.

Arguments in Favor

The primary argument in support of affirmative action is its potential to increase diversity in the workforce while reducing discrimination against certain demographic groups or minorities. Proponents argue that if affirmative action helps minorities enter or rise in a field at a greater frequency, it may also increase the number of people who believe the field is open to them. In turn, the field may benefit from a more diverse applicant pool and a more diverse set of leaders.

Second, proponents of affirmative action argue its role in overcoming deeply ingrained corporate biases. For example, if a company's corporate leadership belongs to the same demographic, they'll be less inclined to select someone of a different demographic to join their ranks. The unwillingness of corporate leaders to choose candidates outside of their demographic ranks is known as a hire-like-me bias.

Third, proponents of affirmative action recognize that some demographic groups face a systematic barrier, which means they lack both the means and opportunities to enter and compete in particular fields. Such barriers can only be eliminated through affirmative action, according to its proponents.

Arguments Against

The primary argument against affirmative action is that it requires positions be awarded on a purely demographic basis, which may introduce an artificial bias, such as sexism. For example, some universities may hire more women because, as of fall 2009, very few women had advanced to the top levels of academia. However, opponents argue that gender has nothing to do with how well someone can perform as a dean, professor, or provost.

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