17 Jul. 2013 | Comments (0) Share Follow @Conferenceboard
Anyone who has hiring responsibilities in 2013 would like to think that the U.S. is tackling diversity head-on. But how far have American companies really come? We have been examining what has happened to equal opportunity in the private sector since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Our data show that progress has stalled, many firms are showing signs of increased gender and racial employment segregation, and few firms monitor equal employment opportunity progress.
The reality is that while your company may manage diversity, it probably doesn't hold anyone accountable for whether your applicants and employees are treated fairly and without regard to gender, race, and ethnicity in hiring and promotion decisions.
Before 1964, employment segregation and discrimination were legal in U.S. workplaces. Black and white workers almost never worked in the same jobs in the same workplaces, and women of all races tended to be clustered in low status, low pay jobs. White males held almost all managerial and professional jobs, as well as most high-skill production jobs.
When Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, it also created the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to monitor progress and authorized the EEOC to collect annual data on race, gender, and the occupational composition of medium and large private sector workplaces. These are the data we analyzed.
What we found is that nearly all of the progress in private sector equal opportunity — in both federal contracting firms (those subject to affirmative action) and non-contracting firms — was made before 1980. CEO-backed affirmative action in particular provided significant benefits for blacks and women prior to 1980, stalled in the 1980s, and many indicators of employment integration into good jobs for blacks and women have worsened since the 1990s. Although workplaces continue to become less white and less male than they once were, desegregation — employment in the same jobs in the same workplaces with white men — has stalled, and minority and female access to managerial and high skilled production jobs have plateaued as well.
So why did equal employment progress stop? We see two primary reasons. The first is tied to national efforts to pressure firms to regulate equal opportunity. The second is related to what is currently happening (or not happening) in your workplace.
Starting in the late 1970s, there was growing white resentment in the courts regarding affirmative action and "reverse discrimination" in employment and education (see McDonald v. Santa Fe Transport and Regents of the University of California v. Bakke). And after the 1980 presidential election, the Reagan administration rolled out a deregulation agenda that included reducing the organizational capacity of the EEOC and the Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance to monitor and enforce equal employment opportunity legislation. Thus, federal court appointments began to interpret discrimination law more narrowly.
These shifts in the political and legal environments removed the political pressure on politicians and CEOs to address discrimination and practice affirmative action. And as political pressure for equal employment opportunity waned, so did private sector vigilance and progress. Indeed, many human resource managers who had hung their professional hats on affirmative action in the 1960s and 1970s rebranded their focus as "Diversity Management." What we show in our book, and others have shown in recent research, is that diversity management alone does not promote racial and gender integration or equal employment opportunity gains.
Today only about 1 in 6 firms hold their managers accountable for the progress of women or minorities in their workplaces. Instead, most firms rely on symbolic public commitments to equal opportunity, occasional diversity training, and defensive legal responses to discrimination complaints as their core diversity practices.
What's wrong with these approaches?
Diversity training often produces as much or more backlash as understanding and may increase discrimination claims and lawsuits. Defending discrimination lawsuits teaches your firm how to discriminate without consequence, in addition to producing little change. What would you find if you checked the employment statistics for departments in your firm that were involved in a discrimination lawsuit five years ago? The odds are that diversity is no better, and probably worse, than before you were sued.
Altogether, most firms are in the business of "managing" diversity, not promoting equal opportunity. Companies now celebrate the promotion of the occasional minority into senior management, but ignore hiring patterns or the turnover of talented people at lower levels. Resegregation is occurring because firms are failing to monitor progress toward equal opportunity.
But it's not as if companies don't know how to do this. How does your company innovate and achieve revenue or productivity gains? The odds are quite good that you set benchmarks and hold people accountable. The odds are also good that your firm's equal opportunity policy doesn't do either.
Despite the absence of regulatory pressure from the federal government or from social movements, many firms continue to embrace the idea of equal opportunity because they value both diversity and fairness. Diversity can lead to a wider range of ideas and problem solving strategies. Importantly for your firm, the U.S. is increasingly becoming a majority-minority country, and you probably will need to deal with real, rather than symbolic, equal opportunity sooner or later. As any good manager knows, embracing an idea is not the same as setting a goal.
Your company no doubt has a strong equal opportunity commitment in your employee handbook and on the company website. You may be thinking, "My firm truly values diversity, certainly my company can't be getting worse." How does your company measure equal employment opportunity? What does diversity progress look like? What benchmarks do you have in place? Without asking these questions, companies are unlikely to truly create equal opportunity environments — environments that are well worth embracing.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 06/19/2013.