States' Bid to Change Workplace Hire Laws Leaves Women Split
REBECCA LLEWELLYN, a woman who owns her own construction business, says California affirmative-action laws opened the door for her 20 years ago.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
''They gave me opportunities that were just not available any other way. Without them, my attempts to form a company would've been disastrous.''
Kay Feldman, a sophomore at the University of Southern California, says affirmative action ''hurts people.... Instead of hiring people on merit, they accept them based on gender.''
The opinions encapsulate a debate that is percolating in this state and across America about the group many analysts say has been helped more than any other in the nation's 30-year experiment known as affirmative action -- women.
''Women are the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action and have been for 25 years,'' says Karen Johnson of the National Organization for Women.
''But there is still a long way to go.''
The US Department of Labor says 6 million women have found employment that would have been otherwise denied them thanks to formal invocations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- compared with about 5 million minorities.
Statistics from the just-released federal Glass Ceiling Commission reflect some of those gains: From 1950 to 1990 for instance, white men dropped from 65 percent of the labor force to 43 percent, while white women increased from 24.2 percent to 35.3 percent.
But the statistics also reflect barriers: Last year, only two women were chief executives of Fortune 1,000 companies. Salary levels in jobs comparable to those of males average 20 percent lower.
Perceptions of women's progress -- or lack thereof -- are shaping where women come down on affirmative action. Largely because of a citizens' initiative now gaining momentum here for the 1996 ballot, California offers a case study of the complexities women feel about the issue.
The California Civil Rights Initiative seeks to end government programs that give minority and female preferences for jobs, promotions, contracts, and college admissions.
Several states, such as Florida, are looking at duplicating CCRI, while conservatives in Washington are drafting legislation that would strip racial preferences from federal law.
''The debate is sweeping the country but will play out in California first,'' says Elizabeth Toledo, California coordinator for NOW.
Because they are the largest constituency affected by affirmative-action laws, women will be key to the success or failure of such efforts to reduce affirmative-action programs. And attempts are being made to mobilize women -- mainly against attempts to roll back existing laws.
Lobbyists from several women's groups have already descended en masse on the Legislature in Sacramento to try to defeat 10 such bills before they leave committee. A key Senate bill was defeated last week 5 to 4.
This weekend, coalitions of activists from NOW, the League of Women Voters, the National Women's Political Caucus, and Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition will gather in California and Washington to trumpet their support of existing programs. Members are enlisting grass-roots support from schools, churches, and civic organizations.