The term “diversity” has become a corporate catchphrase, as American companies struggle to come to terms with an increasingly diverse workforce and customer base. Half of all U.S. employers have established some kind of formal initiative to manage cultural diversity, according to a 1995 survey by the American Management Association. The news is encouraging–at least, on the surface.
But are these programs benefiting African Americans? Do they eliminate prejudice in the workplace or push it underground? While the stated objective of many diversity efforts is to make the workplace more hospitable to all people, are they effective at removing the subtle barriers to advancement that still exist for people of color?
In a word: yes. But just barely. Corporate America is working to accept and utilize its diverse workforce, but it’s not working hard or fast enough. While there has been a lot of cosmetic commitment to change within organizations, this effort, according to some employees, has amounted to little more than a few hours of sensitivity training. Not many organizations have placed diversity at the top of their organizational goals.
SUBJECT TO INTERPRETATION
Many employers are going about the diversity challenge the wrong way. While they recognize a need to make the workplace more accepting of differences, they place too much emphasis on changing the attitudes of people in a company–instead of changing the company culture itself. They do this by focusing solely on all-inclusive diversity training.
After the Hudson Institute’s 1987 groundbreaking study, Workforce 2000, forecasted that minorities would dominate the workplace landscape in the next millennium, the “angry white male” became a popular media icon. (Ironically, as the rancor of angry white men filled the media, the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission reported that in 1995, 95%-97% of senior managers at Fortune 1,000 companies were men and 97% were white.) Many corporations began broadening their approach to diversity management, in an effort to include–rather than ostracize–any employee.
What began years ago as an effort to uncover and eliminate harmful stereotypes about women and minorities has now evolved into a discussion about every kind of difference imaginable, including religion, communication style, management rank, education, age–even family birth order. Furthermore, since diversity has become a global issue, it has diluted the original intent as a tool for creating opportunities for women and minorities in America. Elsie Cross, the Philadelphia-based organizational development consultant who coined the term “managing diversity,” explains: “People who have come to diversity issues late have added every conceivable difference there is. This takes the focus off of real oppression, including racism, sexism and homophobia. I think employers who take this approach are attempting to pander to white-male fears and paranoia. While other differences may be important, they haven’t led to the most egregious forms of discrimination in this country.”
Alice Gresham Hunter, president of OneWorld Staffing in Seattle, agrees. “While an inclusive definition of diversity is important,” she says, “in some companies it has become a way to pretend the primary issues of racism and sexism have gone away.
Bills such as California’s Proposition