Affirmative Action, Networking, and Cognitive Dissonance

I’ve been a supporter of affirmative action for as long as I can remember.

To me it’s a question of fairness.

If a class of individuals have been historically discriminated against, then I think it’s only right that such individuals are given preference when it comes to opportunities.

When I think of affirmative action, I am not suggesting that people who are not qualified for an opportunity, such as admission to a college or a job opening, are given preference over someone who is qualified. However, if two people are qualified for a position, I do not see a problem with using the tenets of affirmative action to give preference to one individual over another.

Bill Clinton, a proponent of affirmative action, stated this idea much better than I can:

Let me be clear about what affirmative action must not mean and what I won’t allow it to be. It does not mean – and I don’t favor – the unjustified preference of the unqualified over the qualified of any race or gender. It doesn’t mean – and I don’t favor – numerical quotas. It doesn’t mean – and I don’t favor – rejection or selection of any employee or student solely on the basis of race or gender without regard to merit…

I also want to note that when I refer to affirmative action, it is not just a race-based program, but more broadly speaking one related to economic affirmative action. As the divide between the haves and the have-nots gets broader and broader, there is a growing class of individuals who are being left behind in terms of opportunities. And affirmative action programs can help such individuals.

There are a couple of key benefits associated with affirmative action.

First, there is the issue of fairness.

As President Lyndon Johnson said in 1965, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say you are free to compete with all the others, and still just believe that you have been completely fair.”

Such individuals need something that will make the race a bit more equitable, and that is providing those disadvantaged individuals the opportunity to compete on a level playing field. And affirmative action programs are one way of providing such an opportunity.

Second, there is the issue of diversity.

Affirmative action plans increase diversity, whether it is on a college campus or in the workplace. And much has been written about the value of a diversity in the classroom and in corporate America.

Colleges already offer “special admission” for athletes, since having such individuals helps bring a more diverse group of individuals to campus, as opposed to just having academic types. And athletic programs can help unite the student body, and create a strong sense of affinity with the college. Again, I believe that such athletes should meet the academic requirements for admission, and if they do, then their athletic ability can be used as part of the admission process.

So affirmative action could be viewed as just expanding such opportunities to a larger group of individuals than just athletes.

OK, time to change gears a bit.

I am also a fan of networking, and encourage my students to start building, and using, their network as soon as they can.

But sometime during the past few days I started thinking about affirmative action and networking, and it struck me that conceptually, in many ways, an argument could be made that they are quite similar.

With networking, individuals are attempting to use their connections (who they know) to get a leg up in some competition, whether that is for college admissions, an internship, or a full-time job opportunity.

I do not see a problem with this, as long as the individual is qualified for the opportunity he or she is going after. And if the person is, then go ahead and use your network to give yourself an advantage.

So with networking, a qualified individual is using his network to take (affirmative) action meant to improve his chances.

With affirmative action, an organization is taking affirmative action to improve the opportunities available to those who are qualified but historically have not had such chances.

Yet my sense is that many people who believe in the power of networking, particularly from a business perspective, are likely not fans of affirmative action.

And to me, that’s a clear case of cognitive dissonance. Here’s the definition from Wikipedia:

In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress (discomfort) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values, when performing an action that contradicts those beliefs, ideas, and values; or when confronted with new information that contradicts existing beliefs, ideas, and values.

Affirmative action and networking, broadly speaking, are trying to accomplish the same objective.

In networking, a qualified individual is trying to give himself an advantage because of who he knows, which is often a function of his background; in affirmative action, a qualified individual is hoping for an advantage because of his background as well. In either case, you’re hoping that someone will use something other than just your qualifications to offer you an opportunity.

So if you are in favor of networking, then to me it follows that you need to be in support of affirmative action as well. And when you have differing views on these two topics, it creates cognitive dissonance.

And since cognitive dissonance creates stress, people try to remove that stress by ignoring arguments that go against their world view (i.e., that there are real benefits to diversity, that there are many examples of unequal opportunity, or that affirmative action isn’t just about quotas.)

I’m not sure how well I’ve made my case here comparing affirmative action and networking. To me there’s something here, and maybe as  I give it more thought and have more discussions about it with other people, my thoughts will become clearer, and I can come back to this post and refine it over time.

Any thoughts or comments are appreciated!

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