Boys Vs. Girls: The Difference Between Affirmative Action and Discrimination

Business.com / HR Solutions / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

If you're applying for a truck driver, are you more likely to get hired if your name is Jane or John?

"Out of the mouth of babes comes truth or wisdom." 

This statement was never truer than during a conversation I had with my 6th grader a couple weeks ago. Her 6th grade class is learning to  "debate" issues and the issue of the week was "should girls be allowed to play on boys' teams?"

My daughter, always the feminist, said "heck yeah." But the boys? 

The boys decided that girls couldn’t play on boys' teams because of these (among other) reasons:

  1. It's illegal to hit girls. (It's really illegal to hit anyone, boy or girl)
  2. How would a boy feel if he loses to a girl? (Probably as bad as a girl losing to a girl.)
  3. Girls like to hang out with each other too much. (Yeah, because boys don't ever hang out.)

The discussion got so rowdy that the boys on one side of the room and the girls on the other were yelling at each other. When the teacher tried to steer them to a different topic, the kids said "No! We're not done yet," to which the teacher asked "what does 'done' look like?"

The kids said "when we've convinced the other side we're right." She laughed. She said "we'll go round and round, but I don't believe it'll ever end." I later told her, "Thank goodness it won't ever end. If it did, I wouldn’t have a job."

Related Article: Defining Success: What Do Age & Gender Have to Do With It?

Discrimination is Discrimination 

As an employment lawyer, I deal with these questions every day. One of the questions a child had was "what happens if you are trying to keep the team equal and you have a very talented boy and an average girl, but to keep it equal you have to take the girl?" That would be called "affirmative action." 

In my line of work, it's actually called discrimination. You take the qualified person. If it happens that you are now unequal in number of minorities, then that's what happens. Bringing someone on simply because of their gender or race starts to cause just as much trouble for the employer as not hiring someone because of their gender or their race. In effect, you have rejected someone because of their race or gender when you choose someone based on some antiquated delusion of equality.

Jane vs. John

As a woman, I have never wanted to be hired just because I am a woman. I have wanted to succeed based on my own experiences and my own knowledge. 

If an employee applies for a position with the name Jane instead of John, is she more or less likely to get the job?  If an employee applies for the position of a truck driver and her name is Jane, she may be less likely to get the job.  Why?  Because truck drivers are seen as manly.  But if a man applies for the position of administrative assistant, is he less likely to get the job? Why would that be? Because women have often been associated with being secretaries. 

Personally, my best assistants have been male, but then again, I'm not wedded to the idea of women being my secretary. When someone tells you they went to see a doctor, is your first question to them:  "What did he say?"  Our inherent bias is to associate certain professions with certain genders and maybe someday that will end. Maybe someday, my daughter's first question to someone will be "What did she say" when talking about doctors. 

Taking It to Court

Coincidentally, during the discussion with my daughter, the United States District Court in Sacramento, California decided that the female wrestlers at UC Davis may have been discriminated against when they "were removed from the university's varsity wrestling  program" and the Equal Protection Clause could be violated when "overall athletic opportunities were unequal as well as when there was inequality in given a sport." Mansourian v. Board of Regents of the University of California at Davis.

Similarly, a recent case brought this very-current issue to the front page of mainstream media with the case of Ellen Pao vs. venture capitalist firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Pao claimed she was denied a promotion and subsequently fired on account of her gender, and sued the firm. Though she lost the case, it brought gender in the workplace into conversations again.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and author of Lean In shared her insight with Bloomberg Business, stating: 

“We have systematic stereotypes of women, and systematic bias of them... For women, success and likability are negatively correlated. As a woman gets more successful and more powerful, she is less liked.” 

Sadly, there is no finish line. The conversation must keep going until we come to a place that more equal, which currently feels like a long way off. In the same interview with Bloomberg, Richard Branson said that said unless corporations change their views, “I don’t think we’re going to get to a situation where boardrooms are very equal for women for another 100 years.”

So what does this mean for the future? Maybe it all goes back to the classroom, to my daughter and her peers. Maybe it starts even earlier than that. The reality is that gender equality inside and out of the workplace

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