Hillary Clinton has put women’s issues at the forefront of her presidential campaign. Calling for changes in the ways companies treat women and families, and for the strengthening of women’s rights around the globe, she’s been hailed as a crusader. Indeed, many believe that Clinton’s desire to enact female-friendly policies may finally bring a “woman’s touch” to the White House.
No doubt women have experienced hardship, and many around the world continue to be denied basic rights. In the United States we’ve come a long way. My aunt, now in her 70s, once told me that she was not allowed to take advanced mathematics courses. The reason? She happened to be female. Fast forward only a few decades: my college experience included some three semesters of calculus.
Many in the United States applaud laws in Norway, Germany, and elsewhere requiring companies to have a certain number of women in management positions. They suggest U.S. companies should face similar requirements, citing the low number of women in senior management. But just because stumbling blocks were once placed in the paths of women doesn’t mean we deserve special treatment now. In fact, government attempts to level the playing field by, ironically, offering women special treatment does women a great disservice.
Take the long-standing policies of affirmative action. Many argue that such programs have opened up many roles to women. Getting into a position and thriving in it, however, are two different things.
A robust literature shows that preferences for minorities in college admissions, jobs, etc., result in mismatches; that is, because students and workers are admitted and hired due to their racial or ethnic backgrounds, as opposed to their qualifications, they are more likely to fail. Black students, for instance, are more likely to enter college than their white counterparts with similar upbringings. However, these students are much more likely to drop out, earn lower grades, and rank at the bottom of their class — not because they are inherently inferior to their colleagues, but because they were poorly prepared.
Placing women into school or work positions based on gender as opposed to qualification sets women up for similar mismatches. Gender preference may help us get our foot in the door, but it sets women up to fail. Again, this is not to say that women are inferior to men, but that these policies place women into positions for which they are unprepared.
Besides setting women up for disappointment, there is another issue to consider, namely, an important social aspect of these policies. In recently applying for academic jobs, I was told on more than one occasion that I “was set” because I was a woman. Never mind the years of school and hard work, and the dissertation I had worked so hard to write. The big boost on my application would not be my publication record—but my gender.
I’ll never know if some institutions interviewed me solely because they had a diversity requirement to fulfill. Even if that was not the case, many people undoubtedly believe that women get jobs they otherwise don’t deserve simply because they are women. As discussed above, these doubters may be correct. Even if a woman is well qualified for her position, however, these policies will assure that her status and skills will be questioned, belittled, and resented.
These attitudes don’t disappear once a woman is in the job. With gender-based policies in place, anytime a woman receives a promotion, a bonus, a commendation, or anything else, there will be those who will legitimately question the validity of her advancement. Did she get promoted because she deserved it or because the company needed to fill a quota?
While policies to promote women in education and in the workplace may be well intentioned, such programs will ultimately fail the very group they are trying to help. They not only foster social discord; they also lead others to discount the work that women do. Moreover, such policies send a negative message to women, telling them they are less than their male counterparts, that without a government mandate, women can’t get the jobs they may want. Once again, we are helpless damsels in distress, incapable of looking after ourselves.
Abigail R. Hall is an Independent Institute Research Fellow (Independent.org) and an incoming Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.