Affirmative Action Myths and Realities

Myth: Affirmative action is another name for quotas. Reality: Affirmative action requires the establishment of placement goals where either women or people of color are represented at less than availability within the current workforce. Affirmative action regulations provide that goals serve as "targets reasonably attainable by means of applying every good faith effort to make all aspects of the entire affirmative action program work" and that goals "may not be rigid and inflexible quotas, which must be met." Quotas may be imposed only by judicial order, and only as a last resort to redress a pattern of blatant discrimination.

Myth: Affirmative action amount to a form of "reverse discrimination." Reality: Affirmative action means taking affirmative steps to attract women and minorities for available employment opportunities and to ensure that candidates are evaluated fairly using non-biased job-related selection criteria. Affirmative action regulations specifically state that goals "do not provide … a justification to extend a preference to any individual, select an individual, or adversely affect an individual's employment status, on the basis of that person's race, color, religion, sex or national origin." The fact that women and minorities continue to be represented at a level less than their availability in numbers of job groups refutes the notion that white men have been subject to "reverse discrimination."

Myth: Affirmative action rewards gender and race at the expense of merit. Reality: This is unlawful. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, you cannot base a hiring decision, in whole or in part, on a person's race or gender. In addition, under Executive Order 11246, a college or university must take affirmative steps to ensure its hiring practices are fair, equitable, and free from discrimination. Affirmative action is intended to ensure that employers hire the most qualified people, including members of groups that previously have been subject to unlawful discrimination.

Myth:The pool of women and minorities in my field is so small that it is virtually impossible to effectively compete for the few who are available. Reality: There are some fields which women and minorities have not entered in large numbers. There are no major disciplines, however, in which women and minorities have not earned terminal degrees. Effective outreach and recruitment are important in helping us reach and attract women and minority candidates, particularly in fields in which there is limited availability. Additional attention to innovative strategies, more personal outreach efforts, and the impact of unconscious biases may be required to compete for a limited number of qualified minority scholars.

Myth: Affirmative action undermines the self-esteem of women and people of color. Reality: It is not affirmative action that undermines the self-esteem of women and people of color, but racist and sexist thinking that stigmatizes women and people of color in the workforce by assuming that they were hired on the basis of their gender, race or ethnicity rather than their qualifications. Ongoing efforts to educate our community should help dispel the misguided notion that affirmative action means hiring less qualified candidates over better qualified candidates. Ensuring access and opportunity is the right course in light of both our legal obligations and our institutional commitment to diversity.

Myth: If federal and state affirmative action laws are repealed, workplace diversity will become a thing of the past. Reality: Given our increasingly diverse society and increasingly global economy, most employers have a vital need for employees who appreciate and can work effectively with colleagues and customers from a broad range of backgrounds. Most employers have found that the processes and results of affirmative action have been a benefit to the bottom line. As a result, many employers have embraced affirmative action as an effective part of their business culture. Ensuring diversity in higher education is particularly important given its role in preparing a significant sector of tomorrow's workforce.