Does ”Equity” Require Preferential Treatment for Men?

The Chronicle of Higher Education has been running a series of short articles on “What’s The Big Idea?” in which various scholars respond to the question, “What will be the defining idea of the coming decade, and why?” A couple of days ago Linda Kerber, an old friend of mine (at least she was before my participation in EEOC v. Sears, Roebuck and Co., discussed at length here) who is a distinguished historian at the University of Iowa, wrote that the defining idea will be “Equality for Women — Still.”
The recent talk about postfeminism, she writes, “is simultaneously silly and dangerous.”

The half-century struggle to establish equality between men and women remains unresolved. To be sure, much progress has been made when it comes to equal access to education and training, equal pay for equal work (and for work of comparable worth), and equal promotion to leadership positions in all fields. These accomplishments are real, but they are incomplete. Moreover, those accomplishments rely on a definition of equality that is rooted in sameness — same access to opportunities and the same rewards — but it is the less-understood idea of equity that will be most bedeviling and vital during the next decade.
The idea of equity — outcomes that justly and fairly accommodate different situations — for all citizens, men and women, goes to the heart of democratic practice. Equity recognizes, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg phrased it, “a woman’s autonomy to determine her life’s course.” Achieving that goal will require us to adjust, disrupt, and reimagine how men, as well as women, live their lives.


Kerber’s call (couched as a prediction) to move beyond equality, with its emphasis on “sameness,” to equity, with its emphasis on accomodating “different situations,” calls to mind an old fault line in the struggle for women’s rights, the struggle between feminists who sought “protective legislation” for women based on their “difference” and feminists who sought gender-blind equality. In the post linked above I quoted a bit of history (or what the 1960s feminists were fond of calling “herstory”):

When the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution was proposed in 1923, it created a rift among suffragists. Women who had fought for protective labor legislation feared that the ERA would undo their efforts to protect women in the workplace, while feminists believed the amendment was necessary to bring about equality for women in American society. The opposition to the amendment by women who otherwise supported women’s rights persisted through mid-century, as is illustrated in the records of organizations such as the National Consumers League. In the 1960s and 1970s the women’s liberation movement began to produce new views of the ERA and renewed support for the amendment.

As I also noted in that discussion, there is now a new chapter to this history. The equal rights feminists of NOW, etc., who won this debate and banished the “protective legislation” feminists to a quaint footnote in histories of feminism, have now (or NOW) abandoned their victory, backtracked, picked up the tattered principles of their vanquished former foes, and, like Linda Kerber in the Chronicle, are now giving full-throated voice to the notion that equality with men is not enough.
This reversal has led to some interesting contradictions. For example, nearly (perhaps literally) all modern feminists supported, and presumably still support, the Equal Rights Amendment, Section 1 of which states that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” And yet all (if someone knows of an exception, let me know) of these modern NOW-like feminists have strenuously objected to the initiatives to amend state constitutions (successful so far in California, Washington, Michigan, and Nebraska) to prohibit state agencies from discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual or group based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin because, they claimed, they would eliminate special programs for women. (I have discussed the opposition of feminists to the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, similar to the rest, here, here, and here.)
Let me hasten to add, however, that in abandoning the gender-blind egalitarian principle that led to their triumph over the “protective legislation” feminists — also known as “difference” feminists, in a familiar twist, because they thought women were not simply “workers with breasts,” as the Marxists were fond of saying, but were purer than men — the gender-blind equality feminists were not unique, or “different.” They simply emulated the abandonment of the principle of race-blind equality and the adoption of pleas for special preferences that have characterized the larger civil rights movement over the past generation.
But if equality is not enough, we are entitled to ask Prof. Kerber and friends, what is? What exactly does “equity” require? No one, man or woman, likes disruption, even if it’s “bedeviling,” but most are willing to “adjust” if it’s really, really necessary. Kerber’s examples are neither clear nor compelling:

Employers need to be able to accommodate workers who must leave to become caregivers. School districts have long embraced the concept of the “permanent substitute” to cover for teachers on maternity leave; inventive programs are now under way to staff research laboratories so that they don’t depend on a single principal investigator.

This new benefit may or may not be a good idea, but wouldn’t it be equally available to men and women? If so, wouldn’t this just be more equality?
The same may be asked of Kerber’s other specific suggestions:

But the workplace is only the beginning. The deeper question is whether we really believe men and women are equal. If we do, then we would eliminate legal preferences based on marriage, opening them to all citizens, and embracing same-sex marriage; we would more easily recognize gender-based violence as grounds for asylum; and we would scrub our citizenship requirements of gender bias (eliminating, for example, the ease with which unmarried American men can deny citizenship to the children they father abroad).

Again, aside from the “equity” of the matter, it’s not clear why a belief that men and women are equal requires believing that men should be allowed to marry men and women to marry women (or, perhaps, to marry a few of each).
Kerber writes that “[t]he struggle won’t be pretty,” but eliminating the gender bias in citizenship and asylum she mentions does not sound very disruptive. Her piece, in short, never makes clear what current problems must be addressed as matters of equity because equality is not sufficient.
That’s not to say that all matters relating to equality (or equity) between men and women have been resolved. Kerber’s piece appeared on August 29. On Sept. 1 Reach Associates, a New York research firm, released a study with some dramatic findings about the relationship between the sexes in one important area, income. Summarizing the study, USA Today reports that “[w]omen ages 22 to 30 with no husband and no kids earn a median $27,000 a year, 8% more than comparable men in the top 366 metropolitan areas….” And Time, in a long article on the study’s findings, noted:

In two cities, Atlanta and Memphis, those women are making about 20% more. This squares with earlier research from Queens College, New York, that had suggested that this was happening in major metropolises. But the new study suggests that the gap is bigger than previously thought, with young women in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego making 17%, 12% and 15% more than their male peers, respectively. And it also holds true even in reasonably small areas like the Raleigh-Durham region and Charlotte in North Carolina (both 14% more), and Jacksonville, Fla. (6%).

Do young men now need “comparable worth” compensation? Are the jobs they do less valued than the jobs done primarily by women? What, if anything, does “equity” require as a solution to this growing wage gap?
In any event, Time reports, the author of the new report are clear about the source of this income gap. James Chung of Reach Advisors, “who has spent more than a year analyzing data from the Census Bureau’s American Community survey, … “attributes the gap overwhelmingly to one factor: education.”

For every two guys who graduate from college or get a higher degree, three women do. This is almost the exact opposite of the graduation ratio that existed when the baby boomers entered college. Studies have consistently shown that a college degree pays off in much higher wages over a lifetime, and even in many cases for entry-level positions. “These women haven’t just caught up with the guys,” says Chung. “In many cities, they’re clocking them.”

The USA Today article emphasized the same gender gap in college attendance:

Education is the key: “Young women are going to college in droves,” Reach Advisors reports. “Nearly three-quarters of girls who graduate from high school head to college, vs. two-thirds of the boys. But they don’t stop there. Women are now 1.5 times more likely than men to graduate from college or earn advanced degrees.” Armed with degrees, young women command higher salaries.

What do the equity feminists think about this imbalance, if indeed they think about it at all? Equality would seem clearly to require men and women to be treated without regard to sex by college admissions officers; does equity require preferential treatment for men? If not, why not?
The problem of male underrepresentation is so severe that it has come to the attention of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported last November,

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has begun examining whether selective colleges are discriminating against women in undergraduate admissions, as the rapidly growing proportion of female applicants threatens gender balance on those campuses….
The commission’s inquiry, which it calls the “FY 2010 Project on Sex Discrimination in Higher Education Admissions,” expects to determine if selective coeducational institutions, both private and public, are giving undue preference to male applicants to avoid becoming “too female.”

“Equality feminists,” if there are any left, can consistently oppose discrimination against women just as, presumably, they would against men, but I doubt that very many feminists of any persuasion have lost much sleep about the growing “overrepresentation” of women in higher education.
“Equity feminists,” however, if they really believe in equity for all, should be quite troubled by the great and growing gender-based “underrepresentation” of one gender in higher education and its resultant gender-based wage gap. They can hardly object in principle to gender-based discrimination in favor of underrepresented males, since they have long since abandoned the principle of gender- and race-neutral equality.

John S. Rosenberg

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

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