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No matter what it is called these days--affirmative action, minority outreach, or its cousin, the politically correct, "managing diversity"--one thing is for certain, it is in trouble. Twenty-five years into a national drive to give minorities a foothold in white male dominated corporate America, affirmative action programs everywhere are under attack in Congress and from beneficiaries and opponents alike.

Originally conceived by Roosevelt and embraced by Kennedy and Johnson, affirmative action began as an encouragement to government contractors to make reasonable efforts at minority hiring. With the Civil Rights Act strictly forbidding quotas, the problem continuing to plague affirmative action programs is the setting and attainment of hiring and representation "goals" that do not cross the line and become quotas.

Currently, two out of every three Americans oppose affirmative action. However, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 60% of all women supported affirmative action programs, but only 9% said they had been helped personally by such programs. Importantly, only 27% thought that women had been helped "a lot" by affirmative action, this despite the fact that women's representation in professional and administrative jobs in the workforce tripled to 40% between 1960 and 1990. In the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 40% of the women surveyed thought women received fair treatment in the workplace and 10% thought women received unfair preferences. On a disturbing note, in a Business Week/Harris executive poll, when asked if they thought their companies could do a better job of hiring, training, and promoting women, 52% of the executives said "no."

Despite the criticism, the programs seem to be doing their job. Supporters quickly point out the positive effects--more women in the workforce and the increase in paychecks for women. White women earned 57.5% of the average white male salary in 1975, increasing to 70.8% in 1993. African-American women have also benefited, but not as much, earning 55.4% of the average white male in 1975 and 63.7% in 1993. These are all gains that proponents of affirmative action programs say will be lost if the initiative is ended. The Los Angeles Times notes that studies of employment patterns "provide strong evidence that affirmative action has driven some of the changes."

Originally formulated as a temporary measure to allow minorities to compete while they gained the higher educational background enjoyed by white males, the program is increasingly viewed by supporters as a needed permanent fixture because of the deeply entrenched effects of racism and sexism in American business and society as a whole.

Many opponents claim that the programs are counterproductive, entrenching rather than removing race and gender bias in this country by setting up unqualified or ill-prepared applicants to fail, thus perpetuating a self-confirming negative stereotype. Opponents also point toward resentment and confusion caused by certain programs. Dr. Thomas Sowell addressed this issue in a Forbes magazine article. "One of the many unfortunate consequences of affirmative action has been that many minorities and females have no definitive way to know whether, or to what extent, they got where they are by their own efforts...By and large, group quotas stigmatize even legitimate achievements."

Once a sacred cow, affirmative action now seems poised to lose a crucial battle. Unpopular with business, court cases had been the effective though not the ideal venue for enforcing affirmative action. These policies are now losing supporters in the legal arena as well. The legal basis was approved by the Supreme Court in a slim five to four vote. Four of the supporting justices have since retired, with all four of the dissenters remaining. Clarence Thomas, a new appointee and a minority, is on record as opposing affirmative action.

We believe there is a continuing need for affirmative action programs because women and minorities have not achieved equity in the workplace. The Federal Glass Ceiling Commission report noted that although women have made progress in middle management ranks, the executive suites of the Fortune 500 companies are still 97% white men. Moreover, even though women have been entering the accounting profession in substantial numbers for two decades, only 6% of partners in CPA firms with 200 or more staff, are women; in firms with 21-200 staff, only 7% are women.

With the dramatic changes in the demographics of the workplace predicted by Workforce 2000 (white male entrants into the workforce will significantly decline to a minority of total entrants), it is evident that American business will need to draw on the talents of all its workforce to remain successful in an increasingly competitive world marketplace. American business cannot survive with a business-as-usual attitude, nor can it afford to revert to the hiring practices prevalent before the 1960s that excluded talented and qualified women and minorities from the business world.

It is clear that affirmative action, as we know it today, has resulted in a step in the right direction for women and minorities by opening doors formerly closed to them. But is it the best step? Perhaps the time has finally come to open the discussion again and explore not just whether the current system is working, but if there is another way to accomplish the same goals before we discard affirmative action. *

Lois May, CPA

Immediate Past President

American Woman's Society of Certified Public Accountants

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