Q: Let's talk Lawrence Summers. The Harvard president recently resigned after giving a controversial speech a year ago suggesting that men might simply be predisposed to be better at math and science. Is there at least a grain of truth in what he said?
A: (Laughs). Suppose you came across a woman lying on the street with an elephant sitting on her chest. You notice she is short of breath. Shortness of breath can be a symptom of heart problems. In her case, the much more likely cause is the elephant on her chest.
For a long time, society put obstacles in the way of women who wanted to enter the sciences. That is the elephant. Until the playing field has been leveled and lingering stereotypes are gone, you can't even ask the question.
Affirmative action is used to slay the elephant, and so affirmative action is the real elephant in the room. And with that, I'm done with the elephant metaphors.
Sadly, affirmative action is one of those issues about which people tend to have strong opinions that are unlikely to change. My unlikely to change opinion is that affirmative action is fair. Note that I don't say equal. Affirmative action is not equal because it is trying to correct previous situations which were not equal. But it is fair to try to correct previous wrongs. I'm not talking about previous wrongs that were committed hundreds of years ago (though that's when these systematic wrongs started), I'm talking about the every day continuous wrongs that, through racism*, classism, and sexism, make it harder for equally talented people to be perceived that way. Greg is more likely to get an interview than Jamal, and there are lots of studies showing that this is true for other groups as well.
Now, I recognize that there are many implementations of affirmative action which are problematic. Michigan's point system, for example, was bizarre - not because it gave extra points to minority applicants, but because it determined admissions by a point system instead of by individual consideration of the applicants to begin with. Still, I don't think that some buggy implementations are a reason to assume this is impossible to do correctly.
So, to my anonymous commenter and others who think that:
I also believe (and I've seen it happen more than once) that, when one is in the job market, it helps being a woman.
I point out that this is unlikely to be statistically true (see previously linked articles). Any positive effect of being female likely only helps to balance out the negative effect of the men who say "I just don't think she'd fit in here" and the other discrimination she's had to overcome up to this point. In other words, affirmative action works to help the job market to be more fair - and yes, this means that men may not have an advantage anymore. That's the goal.
* I'm talking about the US here - I'm afraid I don't know much about these issues, especially racism, on an international scale.