Personal thoughts on affirmative action

The Sotomayor hearings have got me thinking about my personal experiences with affirmative action. In many situations, I think affirmative action can be very beneficial both to the recipient and to society, and Sotomayor (at least, her earlier life) is a prime example. She got into Princeton on affirmative action, and once there she thrived. Now she has the benefit of a Princeton education, and society has the benefit of both her sharpened intellect and her life experience. Win-win. I've seen that happen with many of my undergraduate students, too. Some affirmative action kids thrive, and go places they would not have gone. Some flounder, but I'd be hard-pressed to say they were worse off than if they never got in.

My own experience with affirmative action is that I feel it has been harmful. Unlike most other disciplines in the humanities, philosophy is extremely male-dominated. In my own department, which is quite typical, women make up 25% of faculty (17% of tenured faculty) and 18% of grad students. There are also practically no African-Americans. There is also a sub-discipline difference - women make up a good number of ethicists, and a tiny number of logicians. I have sat in several seminars where I am the only female, and not a single female philosopher was assigned for reading.

Philosophy is also quite competitive, contrary to the image people have of philosophers rejecting real world concerns and seeking only truth, or at least spending most of our time lazily smoking Gauloises. In our program (which is good, but not top-ranked), we have 150 applicants or so per year for five funded positions in the graduate program. A 3.7+ GPA from your undergraduate university is expected, and a good number of entrants have scored 800 on one or more sections of the GRE. Once there, one is constantly being ranked and evaluated compared to other students for funding and teaching opportunities. I mean this quite literally; it is not a casual sort of competitiveness. Faculty have a meeting once per semester where we are all ranked and re-ranked. On receipt of a PhD (which not everyone does, by any means), one has a only 66% chance of getting a job at all -- this is probably worse in the last two years. And then there's achieving tenure.

I think in most fields, both blue and white collar, as well as at undergraduate positions in a university, one looks for a certain level of competence. Once one meets that level of competence, one is accepted as good enough to be in that profession (or university), and that's about it. There are some standouts who clearly excel, but no one begrudges the plenty-good-enough people their positions. I think it is under these circumstances (probably the majority) where affirmative action can be beneficial.

I am, however, in a field where the tiniest gradations in ability end up being determinative of one's career path. Affirmative action is only used to decide when all else is equal, they tell us (also, women get preference for teaching classes, as opposed to TA-ing, on the theory that women instructors encourage women majors). I feel I am perfectly competitive with my male colleagues without such a preference. But the fact that that preference exists leads to male graduate students assuming any recognition I receive that they did not is because I am a woman. I think there is a general, perhaps not-entirely-conscious assumption that a woman who has achieved in the field is not quite as good as a male who has achieved the same status. I don't feel affirmative action has helped me much at all, and I do feel it has slightly tarnished my achievements.

While it is valuable to have women in the field (both for the sake of the women and the sake of the field), it is under these sorts of competitive circumstances where fine-grained differences in talent matter so much that affirmative action might actually be more harmful than beneficial.

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