Linda Chavez

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts hardly seems a likely setting for rampant sex discrimination in state hiring, but apparently the Obama administration doesn't agree. The Justice Department this week filed suit against the state and its Department of Corrections, alleging they have engaged in a "pattern or practice of discrimination against female applicants for entry-level correctional officer positions."

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So what exactly constitutes this discrimination? Apparently, female prison guard applicants have a more difficult time passing a required physical abilities test (PAT) than their male counterparts, which is unacceptable to the Obama Justice Department. "Bringing an end to practices that have a discriminatory impact on the basis of sex," says the press release touting the suit, "is a major priority of the Justice Department and Civil Rights Division."

It wasn't all that long ago that the very idea of hiring women to guard violent men -- even if they were behind bars -- would have been thought unwise if not downright crazy. But we've learned that women can do non-traditional jobs, even excel at them. And we've been reassured by feminists that women would ultimately demonstrate they could perform these jobs just as well as men.

But a funny thing happened on our way to wiping out gender differences. Men, on average, are still bigger and stronger than women. So any job that requires physical strength will find fewer women than men in its ranks. That doesn't mean there aren't some women who outperform some men in physically demanding roles, but it does mean that you're likely to see more men than women pass tests that require high-level physical strength.

Which brings us back to Massachusetts and its Department of Corrections. My colleague at the Center for Equal Opportunity, Roger Clegg, attempted to find out why the Justice Department believes that the PAT "is not job related and consistent with business necessity" and is therefore discriminatory. But no one would talk about the case since it is now in litigation. So he went looking for a description of the offending test and what he found online demonstrates just how topsy-turvy the world of anti-discrimination law has become.

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .

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