Affirmative Action, Here and There and Everywhere

This recent Wall Street Journal article, “The Trouble with Diversity Initiatives,” covers a new study that identifies problems with using affirmative action in corporate hiring and promotion.  The article notes that, according to the study, companies “looking to diversify their employee ranks should brace for a potential backlash.” Rachel Feintzeig reports: 

A meta-analysis from researchers at New York University, University of Michigan and George Mason University traces the roots of stigma that can erupt in organizations that implement affirmative action policies to attract women and racial minorities. The study dug into 45 previous pieces of research to identify the mechanisms that cause these programs to go awry. . . .

Companies that have affirmative action programs – some with a government contract are required to do so – risk subjecting minorities and women to increased scrutiny from their peers, [the] research suggests.

“When you implement policies like this it signifies that certain groups need extra help,” [one of the study’s authors] said. Other employees infer that the minority and women workers aren’t competent or able to nab roles on their own.

In addition, the research found that minority workers hired at companies with affirmative action policies are seen as less warm and less likeable. That’s because the policies are seen as making minorities and women more competitive, giving them a leg up in the race for resources and jobs.

“We tend to make negative attributions about people we compete with,” [the author] said, for example assuming they’re not nice. That can lead to less positive performance reviews from superiors.

And there can be a double blow to negative performance reviews, she added. Sensing the stigma of the policies, women and minorities can become anxious. Their confidence fades and their actual performance can suffer.

I’ll just add that corporate discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, and sex is also illegal, as I discuss here.

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There’s a good discussion of the economic costs of one of the Obama administration’s new affirmative-action regulations for government contracting, here.

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The Chronicle of Higher Education has short summary of a much more dubious “affirmative action” study.  This one involves “an experiment in which students in the fifth through eighth grades competed for cash prizes and were paid according to their relative performance on a national mathematics examination”; students who were considered “disadvantaged” were given prizes even though they did not do as well, and the study found that this policy narrowed achievement gaps.  The abstract of the study says that the experiment “creates a microcosm of the college admissions market.”

Here’s the comment I posted:

For starters, the study does NOT really replicate higher ed admissions, because here we do not have a zero-sum game — that is, no one is disadvantaged by the advantage given to the preferred students. And it appears from the abstract that no attention is given to the costs of preferential treatment (divisiveness, resentment, stigmatization, mismatching, etc. etc. etc.); instead the focus is just on one possible benefit, namely creating more incentive for the preferred students (a benefit that has never been recognized as “compelling” by the Supreme Court, by the way). And it seems hard to believe that demanding less of the preferred students is not ultimately a bad message to send to them. Finally, in deciding which students to prefer, there’s no reason to choose based on race rather than some other, less problematic factor — like, say, economic disadvantage.

On the last point, indeed, while the Chronicle summary talks about “demographic groups,” the abstract of the summary itself does not, defining “disadvantage” instead as those “who on average have less mathematics training and practice.”

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Finally, we have an update from the Ministry of Truth:  In this discussion of how Department of Labor regulations apply to academia, it’s noted that the American Association for Affirmative Action has changed its name to the American Association for Access, Equity, and Diversity.

Incidentally, as I’ve discussed, those regulations are unconstitutional, if any university or university employee (including of course faculty members) would like to challenge them.