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Employers Still Struggle to Desegregate

Researchers find that workplace desegregation > is in even worse shape than it was nearly five decades earlier for certain sectors.

Monday, November 19, 2012
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When Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1964, the hope was it would go a long way in desegregating the workplace. A recent study, however, suggests that progress has been a lot slower than many imagined.

In a book titled Documenting < Desegregation >: Racial and Gender Segregation in Private-Sector Employment Since the Civil Rights Act, sociology professors Kevin Stainback of Purdue University and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, report that efforts to desegregate the workplace since the passage of the Civil Rights Act has come to a halt in some sectors and, in others, has even taken a step backwards.

For African-Americans, Stainback says, the data indicates that the most rapid period of integration occurred in the late '60s. But by the '70s, he says, < desegregation > slowed somewhat; and, by the '80s, there was no progress at all.

The data also showed gender < desegregation started to stall around 2000.

Since 1990, the researchers found, 43 percent of all industries had significant increases in employment segregation between white women and black women.

"We might have expected some periods of stalling, but definitely not re-segregation," Stainback says.

Nineteen of the 58 industries studied showed a trend toward racial re-segregation among white men and black men.

To arrive at their findings, Stainback and Tomaskovic-Devey analyzed data collected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission between 1966 and 2005. Nearly 6 million private-sector workplaces were examined.

David Tulin, a diversity expert based in Wyncote, Pa., says the findings confirm something he's long believed: That companies have made a lot less progress over the past four-plus decades than many people think.

Tulin recalls a statement made by Ronald Reagan during his presidency: "If you can't get them to see the light, make them feel the heat."

"What's happening is that we're expecting people to see the light without feeling the heat," he says.

Stainback believes the study's findings strengthen the case for a "return to affirmative action."

"Most of the progress for African-Americans [on the job front] has been tied to the civil-rights movement," Stainback says. "But as the social movement declined, so too have opportunities."

Not everyone, however, is convinced more affirmative action is the answer.

"You can't legislate away human nature," says BJ Gallagher, a Los Angeles-based diversity expert who is co-author of the best-selling A Peacock in the Land of Penguins. "Sure, you can mitigate it away to some extent, but what I find in the organizations I've worked with is that it's not overt discrimination that's happening, but subconscious discrimination.

"It's the subtle things, like you don't get invited to play golf or you're not put on a special project team,"  she says. "So much of our attitudes toward one another happen on a subconscious level -- and you can't legislate that.

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"Managers may decide not to hire someone … and they don't even know why they're doing it."

The study found segregation was especially pronounced in higher paying industries. "It's easiest to integrate women and minorities in jobs that are considered less valuable," says Stainback, citing the service sector as an example.

In contrast, businesses that placed a heavier emphasis on educational credentials demonstrated far more progress when it comes to desegregating the workplace.

"Obviously, it's a lot more difficult for companies to discriminate when credentials need to be taken into consideration during the hiring process," Stainback says. "Having those credentials definitely increases the likelihood of someone being hired."

R. Roosevelt Thomas, president of Roosevelt Thomas Consulting and Training in Atlanta and the author of World-Class Diversity Management: A Strategic Approach and a number of other books, says the study confirms his belief that the "frustrating cycle of workplace segregation" continues today.

Thomas says he wrote about this cycle in his very first book, noting that companies often work the numbers before relaxing and losing any progress they made; and then start to work the numbers again.

Over the years, Thomas says, "corporations have been very good at doing diversity by PR" and putting on a front that they're OK with diversity. "But the truth is diversity is hardly a done deal."

In light of this, he says, HR leaders need to ask themselves, "What are we, as a company, doing differently than we were 40 years ago?

"If you can't make the case you're doing anything differently, then you have a problem."

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