White Women and Affirmative Action

When white people voice opposition to affirmative action, it is sometimes claimed that this is hypocritical or problematic because white women have benefited more than any other group from affirmative action. Generally, this claim is made in popular press on the basis of no serious evidence.

For instance, Moore (2022), writing in “Teen Vogue” claimed that “it comes as a surprise to many to discover that white women have benefited more from affirmative action programs and policies than any other demographic.”. Her evidence for this is the fact that Crenshaw (2007) said “the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action have been Euro-American women.”. Crenshaw provided no empirical evidence for this statement. 

Similarly, Massie (2016), writing for Vox, stated that: “”The primary beneficiaries of affirmative action have been Euro-American women,” wrote Columbia University law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw for the University of Michigan Law Review in 2006. A 1995 report by the California Senate Government Organization Committee found that white women held a majority of managerial jobs (57,250) compared with African Americans (10,500), Latinos (19,000), and Asian Americans (24,600) after the first two decades of affirmative action in the private sector.”

This is the same Crenshaw citation as above. As for the California Senate report, it of course does not follow that just because white women have had more managerial jobs since affirmative action began that affirmative action, as opposed to more white women trying to enter the work force, or more white women going to college, etc., caused all those occupational gains. 

Kohn (2013), writing in Time, argued that “While people of color, individually and as groups, have been helped by affirmative action in the subsequent years, data and studies suggest women — white women in particular — have benefited disproportionately. According to one study, in 1995, 6 million women, the majority of whom were white, had jobs they wouldn’t have otherwise held but for affirmative action.”

Of course, since white women are the majority of women this does not show that minority women did not benefit more than white women from affirmative action. Further, the article they cite as the source for this figure is another article by Tim Wise which states that “According to a 1995 study, there are at least six million women — the overwhelming majority of them white — who simply wouldn’t have the jobs they have today, but for the inroads made by affirmative action (Cose 1997, 171).”

The book by Cose in turn states, on page 171, that “The Working Woman special report on affirmative action also cited a N95 study by Alfred Blumrosen, a professor at Rutgers University Law School and consultant to the Labor Department, suggesting that an “estimated six million women wouldn’t have the jobs they have today were it not for the inroads made by affirmative action.”

Notice that this says nothing about the racial composition of the women who got jobs thanks to affirmative action. Wise was thus lying about his source, which itself is only citing another report which supposedly cites the primary source.

Turning to the primary source, on page 118, Blumrosen (1995) states that “It is modest to point out that 5 and one half million minority employees are in higher level jobs than they would have been under the occupational distribution of 1960, and that 6 million women have moved into executive, managerial, professional and sales jobs since 1972”. This paper makes no note of proportion of jobs that went to white women nor does it show that this change in occupational distribution was entirely due to affirmative action.

Moreover, this comparison fails to account for the population sizes of these groups.  Using census demographic data from 1980, roughly the mean year of the time period under consideration, giving 6 million jobs to white women would mean that one in every 17 white women got a job via affirmative action and giving 5.5 million jobs to non-whites would mean that one in every five non-whites were given a job via affirmative action. Thus, even if we assume that these numbers are a valid measure of jobs gained due to affirmative action, which has not been shown to be true, and that literally all the women given such jobs were white, which has also not been demonstrated, it is still misleading to claim that white women benefited the most from affirmative action. 

Turning away from the reasons given in popular discourse to serious attempts to measure the impact of affirmative action, the best methodology available is to compare the rate of at which various groups employment grew among firms doing federal contract work, and who are mandated to follow an affirmative action policy, to the rate at which their employment grew among non-contracted firms. Using this approach on data covering 1970 – 1980, Smith et al. (1984) found that affirmative action had a small positive effect on employment for white women but a much larger positive effect for blacks of both sexes. The most dramatic benefit was for black men who in 1980 accounted for 11.6% of managers and officials in non-contractor firms but 44% of them in firms with federal contracts. 

Covering a larger time period, Kurtulus (2016) analyzed data from 1973 to 2013 and found that white women were the primary victims of affirmative action in federal contract work writing that “affirmative action increased the employment of black and Native American women and men at the expense of white women”. The paper also notes a trend for white men to become the managers of federal contract work, but obviously the explanation for this is some factor other than attempts to fill federal affirmative action requirements. Thus, this approach to measuring the impact of affirmative action produces findings which totally contradict the narrative that white women were the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action. 

A somewhat less rigorous approach is to survey private firms, regardless of contractor status, and see whether firms claiming to support affirmative action predicts who they employ. This method warrants less confidence than the previous method because we may doubt the validity of firm’s self reporting who they employ and whether they utilize affirmative action.

The results of these studies vary. Holzer et al. (1999) found that “Affirmative Action is associated with increases of about 15% in the probabilities of hiring white women and black men. On the other hand, the last row indicates that the probability that a white male is hired is lower by about 20% under Affirmative Action.”. So white women in this paper tied with black men for the group that benefited the most and the negative effect on white men was large enough such that the net effect on whites was still negative. 

Button (2006) took this same approach and found that support for affirmative action was unrelated to the hiring of white women. 

AA2

By contrast, the same authors found that support for affirmative action did positively predict the hiring of black employees (Button et al., 2003). 

Kalev et al. (2006) produce still different results. This paper begins by documenting the rise in various forms of affirmative action in private firms between 1970 and 2002.

They then go on to show that which group benefits most from an affirmative action depends on which policy you look at. The most consistent pattern across policies is the negative impact on white men.

That said, in this data set white women are evidenced to have significantly benefited from affirmative action. However, this data is restricted to the impact affirmative action has on who is hired as a manager and is based on relatively older data. This makes it not comparable to the studies referenced above on the net impact of affirmative action on who is hired across all employee positions. And as already noted the federal contract data also showed a lesser anti-white impact in the case of managers. So this study does not contradict the other reviewed research to the degree that it might initially seem to.

In total, this line of research also fails to support the contention that white women have benefited most from affirmative action. And as we’ve already seen, the most solid data available actually suggests white women have on net been hurt by affirmative action.

Moving away from the economy, in studies on admissions bias they generally don’t break the data down by sex and race. However, the net effect is massively negative for whites so if there is any benefit to be a white women, which there is no reason to think is true to begin with, then it is more than made up for by the negative impact on white men. 

(The race columns show the odds of admission compared to those of white applicants when qualifications are held constant.)

CitationSchoolTypeBlackHispanicAsian
Nagai (2008)Arizona StateLaw1115852.18
Lerner and Nagai (2002)University of VirginiaLaw730.81.11.86
Nagai (2008)University of NebraskaLaw442.3989.635.78
Armor (2004)William and MaryLaw2670.660.66
Nagai (2008)University of Arizona LawLaw250.0318.152.54
Lerner and Nagai (2002)William and MaryLaw167.512.473.29
Danielson and Sander (2014)BerkeleyLaw121.618.21.6
Armor (2004)University of VirginiaUndergrad1062.810.94
Nagai (2006)University of MichiganUndergrad62.7947.820.81
Lerner and Nagai (2002)University of MarylandMedical20.632.510.68
Armor (2004)North Carolina StateUndergrad131.930.64
Lerner and Nagai (2001)SUNYMedical9.444.080.76
Nagai (2011)Miami UniversityUndergrad7.992.162.14
Danielson and Sander (2014)UCLAUndergrad5.151.920.85
Lerner and Nagai (2006)US Naval AcademyMilitary4.443.320.67
Lerner and Nagai (2001)University of WashingtonMedical4.014.860.9
Nagai (2011)Ohio StateUndergrad3.334.31.47
Lerner and Nagai (2006)US Military AcademyMilitary1.941.20.68
Lerner and Nagai (2002)George MasonLaw1.131.091.74
MedianAllAll20.632.810.94
MeanAllAll175.5115.431.59

For these reasons, the relationship between white women and affirmative action does not contradict the general anti-white bias that is present in our society. 

7 thoughts on “White Women and Affirmative Action

  1. Hey Sean,

    This claim is also made in the very well known book “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo. DiAngelo, and many others, have historically claimed that white women and non-white immigrants are the main beneficiaries; and there is a layer of truth to this. For example, Obama may or may not have been able to go to Harvard if not for Affirmative action, and without the Harvard degrees, he wouldn’t have a had a serious shot at president IMO (unless he ended up at Princeton or Yale).

    It is worth also pointing out on those California numbers, that the per-capita numbers (especially after age adjusting, since whites are older and correcting for workforce participation, as asians are higher on that metric) would work in such a way that Asians would be benefitting the most using this particular epistemic standard. It is not only that an absolute bullshit standard has been created, but it has been improperly applied for the sake of anti-white activism.

    A related talking point that is not discussed is the argument that legacy admissions are a form of affirmative action for white people. You may have touched on this in your previous posts, I would have to check, but here is a breakdown of the origin of the mainstream claim.

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    • Here’s the thing: We can look at the average scores of Ivy League admissions, and see that being black is worth roughly 200 SAT points relative to being White. If some subsets of Whites, such as legacy a

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