Americans have been under the impression for years that equal employment legislation and similar programs in companies have helped to conquer discrimination in the workplace. We’ve been pretty much secure in the impression that women and minorities have almost as fair a chance at advancement as men, and that the glass ceiling can be overcome.
A recent study by a University of Colorado research team, however, has challenged those statements by providing data that shows that women and minorities actually suffer professionally when they help promote other women or individuals of color. White men, however, are perceived and rewarded positively for promoting individuals from those same sectors.
The authors’ findings are a lot more detailed than that, but what struck me in the month-and-a-half that news about the study has bounced across the Internet is the broad variety of ways that the findings have been interpreted. Most articles mentioning the findings summarize this hot-button study by saying that “dedication to diversity can be a liability in the workplace,” as the Wall Street Journal noted it; or that “valuing diversity is apparently frowned upon by Corporate America,” as the Huffington Post writer framed the issue.
An article in the U.K.’s Daily Mail made the interesting leap that the U.S.-based study meant that “being the token female or minority boss was better for YOUR career” and explained that, “the authors wondered whether it might be better for diversity offices to be run by white males.”
But however you sum up this particular survey, the Hekman et al study challenges our views of diversity in the workplace. It contradicts our comfortable belief that equal employment opportunity legislation and corporate initiatives have been improving job advancement opportunities for years. And it leaves us with the unsettling question of whether equal employment opportunities are really a fallacy for some.
But is the problem our ability to shatter that glass ceiling, or our perception of what it means to us? Hekman touches on this when he suggests that labels can often determine our success in shattering that glass ceiling. If what we really want is to encourage “diversity-valuating behavior,” he says, call it by what you want to inspire: “demographic-unselfishness.” That may seem like a mouthful for some who simply want job advancement, but his suggestion hits at the core of the problem: perception. How we view the problem will often define whether we think we can fix it.
Canada faced a similar problem in the late 1900s regarding another issue of perception: national identity. The steps that it took – which were just as controversial at the time – had an interesting trickle-down effect when it came to issues like diversity in the workplace.
Faced with an increasing amount of television and movie programming from other countries (the U.S. and Britain to be specific), the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission implemented requirements that specified the amount of Canadian-produced content that had to be aired on television. Among other things, it presented Canadian producers with the challenge of coming up with stories and settings that correctly reflected Canadian society and demographics. Not surprisingly, the outcome was more programs that featured First Nations (Canadian indigenous) communities and new immigrants. But it also cast the spotlight on gender issues in the workplace. As assimilation and cultural issues rose in the national agenda, so did the television’s portrayal of those demographics – and so did the viewers’ perception of its importance. Looking back, the Canadian Content concept may have had less to do with defining an image for Canada and more about reflecting and accepting its growing diversity.
Here in the U.S., what we see and experience in the workplace is also reflected by what we see in the media – or in better terms, is often governed by we read and are told. Hekman’s summary of the challenges ahead maybe a wakeup call, but is that because EEO policies don’t work or because, seen through the summary we’re offered by the media, we believe they won’t work?
Hekman’s conclusions were largely limited to what companies might implement of their own volition. But in a country and a time when consumers have managed to revolutionize large corporations’ perceptions of sustainable production and workers’ rights in foreign countries, assuring workplace diversity is just another step toward realizing a sustainable and fair marketplace.