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Home  > Article

Is America Dismantling Diversity?

By Carole Copeland Thomas, MBA

The complexities of continuing to integrate diversity and the real effects of efforts in the workplace lead to reevaluating the route to change and progress.

 

"Capitalism is driving diversity," states Dr. Marcy Crary, Ph.D., assistant professor of management of Bentley College.

 

Companies will continue to wrestle with the issue of race, but diversity efforts that strengthen alliances and demonstrate commitment to all must continue.

When W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963) sounded the trumpets of impending conflict between White nations and "countries of color" at the turn of this century, little did the world realize the far-reaching truth of his words. In The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois states, "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line, the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea."

Indeed as we embrace the 21st century with astounding technological advances and sweeping demographic changes on the landscape, it may seem to many that enormous progress has been made in bridging the chasms created by race, gender, class, age and sexual orientation in America. However, when closely examining the current status of race, gender and other categories now carefully tucked under the umbrella of "diversity," the prophetic nature of the alarm sounded by DuBois still rings true.

The More Things Change?

This country has seen sweeping changes since the early days of racial segregation, lynching, Jim Crow and other then-sanctioned discriminatory practices. The 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote was ratified in 1920, the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Immigration Act in 1965. People of color and women have advanced, and some of their unknown history has been unearthed. Affirmative action, a set of government-enforced policies that opened doors to qualified people of color and women, was officially signed into law under U.S. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Heavily politicized by Presidents Nixon and Ford, affirmative action has met vehement opposition since the late 1970s. Although the objectives of affirmative action and diversity are comparatively different, in the eyes of many Americans they remain indistinguishable and impose unfair quotas on minorities and "reverse discrimination" on whites. The legacy of our past still colors nationw ide diversity initiatives and affirmative action policies in corporate settings. Some corporations have gone with the tide of anti-affirmative action rhetoric and have reduced their efforts to recruit women and people of color. However, government mandates to protect equal opportunities for all and the commitment by many companies across the country to continue diversity programs offer some hope that not all of our past mistakes will be repeated.

Diversity In A State Of Confusion

"Diversity is in a state of confusion," says Virginia Nelson, advisor to the president on community relations and diversity for the TJX companies. Nelson also states that, "many people don't understand the concept, and simply boil it down to race relations. "It's evolving and being reshaped to fit a global world."

Its purpose, though deeply rooted in race and gender issues, has expanded to include other categories as well. "Capitalism is driving diversity," states Dr. Marcy Crary, Ph.D., assistant professor of management of Bentley College who studies the topic on the academic level. As the growth of diversity programs spread throughout the nation and beyond, diversity professionals scramble to provide a broad range of information that can accommodate the needs of an increasingly demanding corporate client base. The subject certainly cannot be limited to just focus on domestic issues, as diversity is increasingly becoming a worldwide topic of discussion.

International Diversity Issues

Technology now connects people across the globe via facsimile, telecommunications and the Internet. Businesses search to find new reasons to develop international trade relations in emerging markets. As a result, greater strides are being made to validate diversity's value as an economic bottom-line issue in the global marketplace. "International diversity is driving domestic diversity," says Maurice Wright, Director of Employment Outreach for BankBoston, one of the nation's largest financial institutions. "Our customers expect our bank to reflect this diversity in its corporate values. Language, culture and ethnicity are important components of this new international mix. This is certainly the case when you consider Henrique Morales, our Brazilian-born bank president."

International groups such as the London-based African and Caribbean Finance Forum also recognized the value of diversity in the global marketplace when it hosted a first-ever international diversity conference in London in 1996. Held in cooperation with The National Black MBA Association, the conference compared the dynamics of diversity in the United Kingdom to the United States.

Middle Management Lip Service

Despite worldwide opportunities, diversity has yet to be fully embraced by many corporations as an asset to their labor force. Experts agree that the driving force behind any successful initiative must begin with senior management. Diversity consultant Robert L. Young, Jr.,, Tempe, Arizona says, " For too many companies, diversity is still a fuzzy, soft, socially nice thing versus a hard metric that drives performance."

Mary Frances Winters, president of The Winters Group, a business consulting firm in Rochester, New York, presided over a CEO roundtable session on diversity attended by the corporate heads of Kodak, Bausch and Lomb and Frontier Telephone Company. Says Winters, "The CEOs get the message, but they admit that the message sometimes gets lost."

Indeed, the future value of diversity in the workplace will depend largely on how committed corporate leaders are, how much is budgeted to develop diversity initiatives and how well diversity-enhancement programs are maintained after massive layoffs and cutbacks. Kodak, for example, had a diversity initiative for over 10 years. Despite the continued vote of confidence from its president, future efforts may be in jeopardy as the company downsizes by as many as 10,000 employees.

As 22-year Kodak veteran, Jonas W. Gadson served as coordinator of diversity initiatives until cutbacks forced him into a different position within the company. Although Gadson feels that senior management is committed to diversity, he wonders if the commitment has filtered down to middle management. "There is a big blockage there. Too often middle managers don't want to use it, and are affected by the media. They look at affirmative action, managing diversity programs and quotas, and simply tie them altogether," he says.

Middle management lip service rather than real action threatens diversity initiatives. Too often pronouncements from the top become the bottlenecks for the middle. This is especially true when diversity is simply seen as a set of rules and processes forced on managers. Aaron Nurick, chairman of the management department at Bentley College, who teaches and consults on diversity issues agrees. "When diversity, amplified as an accessory, is merely tacked on as a special program, its purpose is minimized."

The Future

Given all of the progress made in this country, the prophecy of W.E.B. DuBois - that the race problem will impede the progress of this nation - looms large. As the United States marches toward a new century companies and organizations must confront the complexities of diversity in an effort to fully integrate it within the strategic fabric of their employee populations. In some ways, diversity is being dismantled and rebuilt to produce a more complete and durable model. Only through the course of time and through the commitment of executives, managers, and workers willing to personalize the concept will diversity become a permanent instrument of change and progress.







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