Men Don’t Need Their Own ‘Affirmative Action’


Three months after the fall of race-based affirmative action, the academic world is still wrestling with questions of who does — and doesn’t — deserve a tip on the admissions scale: from athletes, legacies, children of donors, and children of faculty (who collectively comprise 30 percent of Harvard’s student body), to men.

Across the nation’s collegiate classrooms, women outnumber men three to two. Of course, this ratio does not yet reflect the growing number of students who identify outside of the gender binary. But still, it is significant — and for some admissions offices, alarming.

As a Board, we’ve decided firmly in favor of race-based affirmative action and staunchly against legacy admissions. An admissions boost for men may appear to align with our appeals to a diverse student body in our defense of race-based college admissions.

But these struggles for educational equity are not equal.


Affirmative action is primarily beneficial because it is reparative. The policy boosts opportunities for applicants that have historically faced systemic barriers to higher education and its premiums.

Men do not qualify as such applicants. Colleges like Harvard admitted only men for centuries. But even in more recent history, though fewer men have been attending college than women since the 1980s, they remain severely overrepresented in the positions of power that many leverage higher education to achieve.

Although women and men fill entry-level corporate positions in the United States and Canada at approximately the same rate, the proportion of women dwindles with each promotion, until women make up only around a quarter of C-suite roles. Once in these seats, women are assumed to be less competent leaders than men.

In academia, too, women make up only 31 percent of full-time faculty — and only 27 percent of tenured faculty — in American higher education, as of 2019. They face bias in publishing and grant applications, and are more likely to be asked to do low-visibility work without reward.

Men may face barriers that make them less likely to apply to college, but women face barriers from the moment they step on campus to long after they’ve graduated. Arguments for an admissions boost for men that hinge on gender parity in the dating scene are nonsense in comparison to the long histories of racism and gender discrimination.

While not a case of affirmative action, a gender imbalance in higher education still constitutes a real social problem. For young men to feel that they don’t have a future or access to higher education — one of the most effective mechanisms for upward mobility — is a significant issue, both for the well-being of those young men and for society at large. Thousands of purposeless second sons under European primogeniture spurred the First Crusade. From the GI Bill to monogamy, history is littered with attempts to remedy the societal instability caused by lost young men.

At the point of college admissions, it’s much too late to help this male malaise. Gender gaps in academic achievement develop well before the college admissions process, and for varying reasons across socioeconomic groups.

For Black and Latino young men, low rates of college admission seem attributable to the school-to-prison pipeline and household income inequality that incentivizes earning income over attending college. Young white men from low-income backgrounds are part of a broader “rural America death spiral,” facing the opioid epidemic and rising suicide rates. In the case of men generally, toxic masculinity pressures men to assume the role of breadwinner at the expense of their own well-being.

Solutions to these various causes of gender disparities in educational achievement must start at an early age. Harvard Graduate School of Education and Harvard Kennedy School should fund research and outreach programs to develop such practical, narrowly tailored, early onset solutions. Harvard has already committed to partnering with historically Black colleges and universities, much to our approval; we hope Harvard continues to invest in initiatives that foster a more equitable education system for all students.

We believe in fixing the problems that plague men today. But that requires acknowledging the pervasive harms of the patriarchy, under which women continue to suffer, and the nuanced intersectional nature of these problems — which casts gender-based ‘affirmative action’ as incomparable to the race-based affirmative action we so recently lost.

​​This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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