Myth: Affirmative action denies jobs to the most qualified.

Fact: All recipients of affirmative action are qualified by definition.


Affirmative action doesn't require a company to hire the local percentage of women and minorities, qualified or not. The program determines the percentage of qualified women and minorities available to a company, then sets flexible goals, to be reached in good faith. As a result, numerous studies show that minorities who land their jobs through affirmative action are not less qualified than their colleagues.


Critics of affirmative action often evoke images of qualified white males being denied jobs so that lesser qualified women and minorities might have them, all in the name of racial and gender fairness. But this is one of the worst myths about affirmative action.

Affirmative action works by determining what percentage of qualified women and minorities are available to a company, and then setting a goal for hiring that percentage. For example, suppose a minority makes up 30 percent of the local population, but only 15 percent are qualified for the company's jobs. The goal for the company is 15 percent, not 30 percent. And if the company makes a good-faith effort to reach this goal but fails, then it incurs no legal penalty -- the goal is simply reset for the next year, and the next, and the next, if need be. The courts step in with quotas only in the case of blatant discrimination against clearly qualified minorities.

Seen in this light, it is really quite difficult to criticize affirmative action, because not meeting a goal suggests that the company is discriminating against qualified people from one group in favor of qualified people from another group. A company shouldn't care about the ethnic background of its employees as long as they're qualified; indeed, intelligent companies will recognize that it expands their talent pool. This is the reason why major companies like IBM have openly declared their support for affirmative action; they realize they are not being forced to hire less qualified individuals. On the contrary, it's good for the bottom line.

If this is how affirmative action works in principle, how does it work in practice? Is there any evidence that affirmative action is forcing companies to hire less qualified individuals?

Both sides of this debate can trade anecdotes, but an in-depth study of this issue was conducted in 1995 by Pratkanis and Turner. They found little evidence to suggest that affirmative action recipients are less qualified than their colleagues. (1)

Two field studies of manufacturing and police organizations did not find any drop in organizational performance after implementing affirmative action. (2)

Formal work evaluations of minorities in companies using affirmative action are not significantly lower than their white colleagues. (3)

And some companies have reported unexpected positive benefits from hiring a diverse workforce. (4)

Nor does affirmative action lead to widespread reverse discrimination claims by whites. A 1995 U.S. Department of Labor study found that whites filed only 3,000 reverse discrimination cases that year, and almost all of them were found to be without merit. Fewer than 100 cases actually involved reverse discrimination, and only in six cases could the claims be substantiated. (5)

The claim that affirmative action forces companies to hire less qualified people both reflects and reinforces a cruel stereotype about women and minorities -- and a false one, since the benefactors are qualified by definition.

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1. A. R. Pratkanis & M. E. Turner, The proactive removal of discriminatory barriers: Affirmative action as effective help (1995). Manuscript submitted for publication. Reported in Faye Crosby, Audrey Murrell, John Dovidio, Rupert Nacoste, Anthony Pratkanis, Janet Helms, "Affirmative Action: Who Benefits?", a briefing paper of the American Psychological Association, Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues.

2. "Affirmative Action: Who Benefits?"

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. R. Wilson, Affirmative Action: Yesterday, Today, and Beyond (Washington, DC: American Council on Education, May, 1995).