Nova workboard

a blog from young economists at Nova SBE

Positive Discrimination: Pros and Cons

Positive discrimination is usually the answer to correct long lasting discrimination against a certain group or minority. Generally, these groups are discriminated both at the legal and social level and it is usually understood that the social dimension of the problem cannot be reversed solely by “legal equality”.

This was certainly the case in the US until the sixties in particular in the southern states under the Jim Crow laws. At the time, it was believed that the repeal of the discriminatory legislation could not end the widespread segregation on its own at least on the medium run. The resolution of the social discrimination demanded a stronger solution which would oblige people to overcome their pre-existing prejudice. The solution was Affirmative Action, moving the discriminated minorities from one extreme to the other, negative discrimination to positive discrimination. 

The solution to the problem of gender inequality in the Middle-East and North Africa necessarily passes by such a solution. No one expects that once these countries move to a legal system that recognizes man and women as equals, problems such as the inclusion of women in the labor market suddenly disappear. In such a scenario, the rights of the discriminated party need to be enforced and positive discrimination is most likely the only solution.

The downside of this type of policy is a consequence of its discriminatory nature. These measures may undermine the opportunities of the most qualified to enhance the chances of the elements of the discriminated group, generating economic inefficiencies and, at the very least, situations of clear injustice.

The decision to put these programs in place should be made on the basis of a careful comparison of their costs and benefits. I do not doubt that the “net present value” of such an initiative in extreme situations, such as the ones mentioned in this text, is clearly positive. However, in less extreme cases some skepticism is, at least in my opinion, acceptable. To be more precise, one might wonder if gender quotas make sense in countries where equal access to education and the labor market is ensured and no significant level of prejudice against women exist.

No less important, is the question of when to pull off these programs and how to do it. A study on the elimination of Affirmative Action in two important states of the US[1] may point out that provided that sufficient time elapsed no major costs come from the elimination of these measures. Anyhow, the answer to this question probably depends on the case we are dealing with.

João Morgado nº 510


Card and Krueger (2004) – “Would the Elimination of affirmative action affect highly qualified minority applicants?”

Holzer and Neumark (1999) – “Assessing Affirmative Action.”

Cavalcanti and Tavares (2008) – “Assessing the “Engines of Liberation”: Home Appliances And Female Labor Force Participation.”

Júlio and Tavares (2010) – “The Good, the Bad and the Different: Can Gender Quotas Raise the Quality of Politicians.”

Carla Power – “The Price of Sexism”, Time Magazine, June 4, 2012

[1] Card and Krueger (2004) – “Would the Elimination of affir mative action affect highly qualified minority applicants?”


Author: studentnovasbe

Master student in Nova Sbe

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