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Affirmative Action

Mandatory affirmative action draws resentment from well-entrenched interests whether it is the US or India, as the American Economic Association's attempt to drop the equal opportunities clause from its job advertisement shows.

Affirmative Action

Cross-Commonalities in the Backlash

Mandatory affirmative action draws resentment from well-entrenched interests whether it is the US or India, as the American Economic Association’s attempt to drop the equal opportunities clause from its job advertisement shows.


hile the question of reservations in colleges and jobs to help disadvantaged sections continues to raise controversies in India 60 years after independence, a similar executive order signed by president Lyndon Johnson 40 years ago for promoting affirmative action policies in the US has raised a storm in academic circles in the US too. The parallels in the Indian and American “backlash” reactions against under-represented groups show that it is one thing to mandate social equity through legislation, and quite another to change entrenched social perceptions.

Executive Order number 11246 signed by president Johnson in 1967 requires that all institutions that receive federal funding of $ 50,000 or more, must have an equal opportunities clause incorporated into all their advertisements for admissions and job recruitments. The equal opportunities clause amounts to a promise that other things being equal, candidates from minority and under-represented groups will receive preference, on grounds of social equity. Women, Hispanics and blacks (especially African-American females) are categorised as “under-represented” in higher education and jobs at the higher level, and qualify under the mandate for affirmative action.

Fear of Reverse Discrimination

In the second half of 2006, the University of Vermont placed a recruitment advertisement in the Job Openings

Economic and Political Weekly April 21, 2007

for Economists (JOE) published by the American Economic Association (AEA) inviting applications for a position in the faculty of economics. The advertisement included the stock phrase that the department “welcomes applications from women and under-represented ethnic, racial and cultural groups and people with disabilities”. The secretary of the AEA, John Siegfried, decided to delete that clause about equal opportunities, “because the AEA board construes such language as “discriminatory” (against white male applicants). This decision to delete the clause led immediately to a furore among economists, especially members of the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE)1 who pointed out that JOE was the most widely consulted publication for employment openings in economics and that the AEA has a “virtual monopoly in the publication of academic positions in economics”. Besides, under the US federal civil rights law, the university is required to spell out its commitment to affirmative action policies. Legal opinion taken by the university also confirmed that the clause encouraging minority groups to apply, does not amount to “reverse discrimination” against white males.

Mary King, secretary general of IAFFE, in her letter to the AEA questioning the decision to alter the advertisement, has pointed out that “Economics is a discipline with a particularly hostile climate for women and under-represented minority groups”, and that among all the social sciences, economics has the lowest percentage of women at the faculty level” (so that urging women and other minorities to apply fits in with the national political commitment to social equity and diversity”) while Stephanie Seguino of the department of economics at the University of Vermont has declared that their department is “more in need, not less, of language that signals openness in job advertisements”.2

In December 2006, Marianne Hill, senior economist at the Centre for Policy Research, strengthened the protests against the censoring of the advertisement by citing a survey that examined three types of advertisements, one without any reference to affirmative action, the second merely mentioning affirmative action in a tag line at the bottom, and the third specifically urging minority groups to apply. No woman applied for the first, and at least one Hispanic applicant has gone on record to say that he applied to some jobs “only because of such welcoming language in the job ad”. The clause urging minorities to apply was an “incentive” to try his luck, and he says he “would not have considered applying otherwise”.3 In theory, the US may be the “land of opportunities” but the ground reality is that minority groups still face discrimination and hostility, especially in academia at the higher levels. Public institutions of higher education are specifically not excluded from the equal opportunities mandate. Decisions of the AEA carry weight because its board includes representatives from prestigious institutions like Harvard and the universities of California (Berkeley) and New York. As one of the letters of support from Roxane Gudeman who has researched affirmative action, points out, “Support for using race-sensitive or gender-sensitive selection criteria is (already) fragile” and deletion of clauses mandated by presidential decree would further erode the movement for justice and fair play for disadvantaged groups of the community.

The president of the Association for Social Economics (ASE) Deborah Figart (dean of graduate studies and professor of economics in New Jersey) added her support to the move for protecting affirmative action and ensuring diversity, by writing to the AEA board. ASE members also carried out a “maroon ribbon” 4 protest to condemn moves to treat affirmative action mandates as “reverse discrimination” against white males. What is curious, however, is the fact that a large number of the elected members of the current board of the American Economic Association, happen to be women.

The upshot of the discussions over the controversy about promoting affirmative action was that the president of the AEA, George Akerlof, has responded to the controversy by writing to the secretary general of IAFFE saying that “The American Economic Association will take what you have sent to us, very, very seriously.” This was followed by the AEA voting in January 2007, to “loosen restrictions on references to minority groups in the association’s job notices”.

Economics and Socio-Political Equity

That was a victory for gender and social equity – on paper. However, as observers point out, there are still male white academics who wonder what the fuss was all about, and why under-represented groups need affirmative action, just as factions in India opposing the policy of reservations (for women in parliament, for instance) argue that “merit” alone should be the criterion, not gender, and that giving a “leg-up” to disadvantaged sections on grounds of equity will result in a weakening of “standards” (and reverse discrimination against the dominant groups – males, or upper class/caste groups, as the case may be). The point is not that women (or other minority groups that are disadvantaged) should be preferred for being women (or minorities) but that representatives from these sections who have merit do not get a level playing field (whether in the US or in India – or anywhere else, for that matter) due to centuries of patriarchal discrimination and social stereotyping (as “incompetent” or “incapable” – the two arguments that have been trotted out against blacks in the US and women or dalits in India).5 Those who questioned the initial decision of the AEA to censor the employment advertisement point out that the clause about equal opportunities is more about casting a wider net, and ensuring greater social inclusion for all sections of society, and less about “reservations” or restrictions.

Gender is only slowly getting attention in economics now, after several studies pointed out during the 1990s that globalisation affects women (who make up the majority among the marginalised poor) more adversely than it does males, and that looking at overall growth rates, or incremental household incomes, does not examine whether the incremental benefits result in intra-familial equity. If the poor get poorer and the gulf between the haves and the have-nots widens, even a 10 per cent GDP growth fails on grounds of social equity. This intersection of economic criteria with socio-political goals of equity is what IAFFE seeks to highlight, and mainstream economics is yet to come to terms with. Deborah Figart says, “We need to continue to build a consciousness raising movement about the dearth of women and people of colour at all levels of economics”, but that applies not just to economics, or to American academia, but also in a wider context – and not just in relation to women’s representation (in the sciences, in parliament, in the judiciary, etc) but those of other groups that face the glass ceiling on grounds of class or caste (dalits among editors in the media, for instance, or slumdwellers’ right to representation in urban planning and decisionmaking – if one million slumdwellers

Economic and Political Weekly April 21, 2007 are going to be affected by a metropolitan project that costs a few thousand crores of rupees, as stake holders they have a right to be heard and to be part of the decisionmaking process). Whether it is a controversy over minorities’ representation in American universities, or an issue concerning women’s political participation at decision-making levels in India, the common thread that runs through the arguments for and against, the claims as well as the backlash, show many similarities.




1 IAFFE was incorporated in 1992 after some women economists attending an annual meeting of the AEA felt that mainstream economics was not taking into account the gender implications of economic policy discussions and decisions that affect women differently from men. A session titled “Can feminism find a home in economics?” organised by Diana Strassman of Rice University in January 1990 drew a packed house and led to the founding of IAFFE which now has members from over 50 nations. Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen is a member and was a keynote speaker at IAFFE’s recent annual conference at Oxford, UK. It is not necessary to be a woman to be a member, but commitment to gender equity is necessary.

2 The latest report of the Committee on the Status of Women in Economics points out that women earned just 27.9 per cent of PhDs granted in the discipline (a figure that has remained almost unchanged over the last decade) while another study found that only 44 out of 2,785 faculty members in PhD granting American economics departments were African-American (which amounts to gross under-representation, considering the proportion of the population that is of African-American origin).

3 Stephanie Seguino, Associate professor at the University of Vermont, on e-mail listserv debating this issue, December 19, 2006. (IAFFE-L)

4 Maroon is the official colour for economics in academic ceremonial regalia.

5 The Indian winner of the Right Livelihood (alternate Nobel) international award for 2006, Ruth Manorama, observed at a national conference of women in the media held at Bangalore in February 2007, that there are “no dalits” among the top editorial places in any leading national daily in India. While examining India’s report presented to the UN Committee Against Racial Discrimination, the committee has recommended in March 2007 that job reservations for disadvantaged communities like scheduled castes be in fact extended from the government sector to the private sector too.

Economic and Political Weekly April 21, 2007

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