The Segregated Workplace

Given the proliferation of corporate publications and websites that feature smiling minorities, one might think that the days of stark workplace segregation are long gone. And while, yes, the American economy is no longer formally segregated, the data clearly show a workforce where minorities remain greatly underrepresented at management and leadership levels and overrepresented in low-wage work.

A 2007 study conducted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a government agency responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination law, found that only 20 percent of minorities are midlevel managers, despite the fact that they account for 34 percent of the total workforce. Moreover, only 24 percent are white-collar professionals and 17 percent are executive or senior-level officials. At the highest levels of corporate governance, these numbers are even smaller. A survey released last year by the Senate Democratic Hispanic Task Force found that just 14.5 percent of directors on corporate boards are people of color.

These persistent disparities are embedded in the structure of our economy. In 1972, according to the earliest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, average labor-force participation for African Americans was 60 percent, the majority of whom were employed in low-wage work. By 1999, that number had peaked at just 66 percent, and it recently slid to 62 percent, due mostly to the recession. Likewise, in 1973, average labor-force participation for Latinos was 60 percent, peaking at nearly 70 percent in 2000 and sliding down to 68.5 percent by 2008. The numbers are comparable to whites, who have a current participation rate of 66 percent but are more likely to hold higher-income positions. By contrast, minorities are still concentrated in the lower rungs of the American workforce; 53 percent of laborers, 50 percent of service workers, and 33 percent of office and clerical workers are people of color.

This has a domino effect on employment trends, says Algernon Austin, director of the Economic Policy Institute's program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy. "The channeling of minority workers to positions of lower importance can prevent minorities from reaching the higher-level management," Austin says, "because in those marginal sectors, you don't have the opportunity to demonstrate your abilities."

This dynamic has been a concern since at least the 1960s and 1970s, when the federal government tasked corporate America with diversifying its workforce. In particular, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 required all employers to halt discrimination, and the following year, President Lyndon Johnson issued an executive order requiring federal contractors to take "affirmative action" to end discrimination. That said, the ambiguity of these directives -- and fairly weak enforcement -- produced little immediate change in employment practices; in 1970, according to a 1998 analysis by Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin, only 4 percent of employers had established affirmative-action offices and just 20 percent had established affirmative-action policies.

By the mid-1970s, however, thanks to a Supreme Court case (Griggs v. Duke Power Company) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, large numbers of employers were covered by affirmative-action law. By 1976, according to a study from the Bureau of National Affairs, more than 80 percent of large firms had equal-employment policies. Unfortunately, as the Reagan Revolution unfolded in the 1980s and conservatives rolled back affirmative-action policies at the regulatory level, employers began downplaying legal compliance and focused instead on "managing" diversity in the workforce, as well as building more-diverse customer bases.

Since then, companies have relied on a variety of methods to draw and retain minority employees. Prominent among them are so-called diversity consultants, who assist companies with recruiting minorities, ensuring their satisfaction, and navigating federal diversity guidelines. Some do this with workshops and awareness trainings, while others, like the Portland, Oregon-based firm White Men as Full Diversity Partners, work with "majority groups," or white men, to enhance their understanding of diversity and to emphasize the extent to which "whiteness" is as much a category as being black or Hispanic.

The philosophy, says founding partner Michael Welp, is simple: "Most white men learn about diversity from other minorities, which can be frustrating for the minorities. We try to bring white men in to educate other white men about diversity." Their programs center on a three-and-a-half-day "learning lab," in which white men attempt to explain the importance of diversity to other white men.

Still, conscientious measures often have limited gains. In a 2006 study that analyzed a broad array of corporate diversity programs, Dobbin wrote that companies frequently create diversity programs without determining whether they are effective. Workforce Management, a magazine that tracks industry trends, estimates that companies spend $8 billion on diversity training annually.

In Dobbins' study, the training programs were as likely to increase bias as they were to reduce it, and few approaches boosted minority representation. At a variety of companies, the best programs -- which increased the proportion of black women and men in management positions by 30 percent and 10 percent, respectively -- emphasized organizational responsibility and active recruiting.

As Dobbins wrote, "Structures that embed accountability, authority, and expertise (affirmative action plans, diversity committees and task forces, diversity managers and departments) are the most effective means of increasing the proportions of white women, black women, and black men in private sector management." By contrast, practices that target bias through training or evaluations show little effect on the whole and can generate backlash that harms diversity efforts.

As the corporate sector has struggled to integrate, some argue that the military has done so successfully. The military was, in fact, one of the first U.S. institutions to integrate, as a result of President Harry Truman's 1948 executive order. Though this tremendous shift set an example for companies, minorities are now overrepresented in the nation's armed services and poorly represented in the higher echelons of leadership.

Of the 1.4 million men and women in the military, 38 percent are racial minorities. Of that total, 17 percent are African American and 11 percent are Hispanic. In the broader workforce, by contrast, they represent 10 percent and 14 percent of employees, respectively. Likewise, as in the corporate world, there are also broad disparities in military leadership. In 2009, there were more than 237,000 active-duty officers, and of those, only 22 percent belonged to a racial minority, according to the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, an office of the Pentagon responsible for both promoting diversity -- through training and education programs -- and developing cultural sensitivity among existing service members. A spokesperson from the DEOMI declined to comment on the trend (the office collects information but doesn't attempt to provide an explanation).

Many officers are groomed by the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) programs and at various military service colleges, which are most accessible to those with first-rate educational resources at the secondary level. Unfortunately, this tends not to include minorities, who are underrepresented at several service academies. At the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for example, African Americans were a scant 5 percent of the 2011 class, while Latinos were somewhat more, at 9 percent. However, through concerted outreach to minority communities, particularly those in inner-city areas, administrators at the Naval Academy were able to increase the number of black students to 9.5 percent. Unfortunately, the number of Latino students fell to just a little more than 7 percent. The Air Force Academy was somewhat less successful but still increased its African American population to nearly 8 percent of the 2014 class.

In the end, though, these amount to post-hoc solutions; broader educational disadvantages mean that fewer minorities attend and graduate from schools that send people to the corporate workforce. From primary school onward, African Americans have worse educational outcomes: Only 12 percent of black fourth-grade boys are proficient in reading, according to a recent report by the Council of Great City Schools, an organization of the nation's largest urban public school systems. Last year, Harvard economist Roland Fryer found that by 12th grade, African Americans trail their white peers in academic performance and are twice as likely not to graduate or receive their GEDs. For those who do graduate and attend a public college, only 43 percent graduate within six years.

Companies interested in recruiting and training a diverse workforce have reached a point where persistent gaps in educational performance and achievement put an inherent limit on that possibility. While private and public institutions should continue to strive for workplace diversity, greater integration will only come with a substantial, sustained effort to address racial economic and social disparities that put minority employees at a greater disadvantage from the outset.

You may also like