Diversity in the Workplace Research Paper Starter

Diversity in the Workplace

Before any analysis of the diversity of a workgroup, its internal conflict, or its productivity, a fundamental understanding of race, class, and gender as well as systemic racism and chauvinism must be understood. Additionally, by viewing the issue of workplace diversity at a macro levels an understanding of socialization, education, healthcare, and the role of company community and diversity projects can be brought into the conversation of discussing the possibility of more diverse workplaces in the future. This article gives a longitudinal perspective of the issue of workplace diversity and highlights the role social research plays in challenging and shaping business practices related to workplace diversity.



Work & the Economy > Diversity in the Workplace


The idea of diversity in the workplace has become a priority for human resource managers and public relations managers in large corporations, particularly in the United States. A link to a corporation's diversity program or mission statement can be found on virtually every Fortune 500 company website. Since the early 1990s, companies have aggressively positioned themselves in the marketplace as an employer championing workplace diversity and a partner supporting local diverse communities. This drive toward diversity has been spurned by dramatic shifts in manufacturing jobs away from advance capitalism economies, a rise in service sector jobs, company branding, investor relations, and in some cases a sincere business ethic. Despite the public narrative on diversity presented by companies, growing diversity--and even hiring trends favoring women in America's service-intense workforce (Green, 2003)--the fact is that many of the problems related to diversity do not seem to be going away. White men still dominate high status jobs and substantial pay gaps persist between men and women, white Americans and minorities, and upper and lower classes. Diverse teams in organizations routinely encounter communication obstacles and in many instances are less productive than their homogeneous counterparts.

Many of the challenges of diversity remain beyond the reach of large companies. Historical systems of racism, chauvinism, and classism along with their inherent rationality have lost favor with the rise of new cosmopolitan social graces. Yet these systems of historical bias remain intact and interconnect with networks of enculturation, education, health care, and economy constructing a faceless systemic bias that constrains the rise of a highly skilled diverse workforce. The well-intentioned corporation may find that once it has addressed internal issues of hiring, training, and promotion bias that the diverse workforce they want to hire simply is not available.

To better understand many of the issues surrounding the diversity in the workplace discourse, it is necessary to be familiar with some of the basic concepts and dichotomies leveraged in the diversity debate. The primary categories utilized in research are race, class, and gender. These categories can be, and are often, extended. Other categories can include age, physical abilities (ableism), religion, and sexual orientation. Within companies and labor markets diversity is studied in proportional analysis of minority and majority group members and in integrative approaches that examine faultlines determined by reoccurring majority-minority splits across many categories (Kravitz, 2005). Thus, diversity can be measured separately at many levels in the workplace hierarchy including the field, shop floor, project team, management team, and board room. Disparities in fairness can be studied through phenomena such as wage gaps, job segregation, marginalized work, and glass ceilings. Finally, workplace culture and its relationship to proportional representation, pay structure, and authority allow researchers to analyze the ability of certain types of workers to have a voice in the workplace. With these approaches, the sociologist is able to go beyond just measuring the count of majority and minority employees in a workplace. The sociologist can measure upward mobility, fairness in pay, status in like jobs, the effectiveness of teams, and cultural changes. Diversity is a social benefit only if it encompasses fairness in opportunity, rewards, and proportional representation.

Race & Ethnicity

Race is a social construct that identifies groups of people by certain shared characteristics. More often than not these characteristics are phenotypical, that is, differences in color of skin, facial features, and hair texture. Race as a category does not reflect actual genotypical differences (gene differences). For this reason race may actually hide or obscure discrete ethnic groups with common historical origins (Marshall, 1998). This does not prevent sociologists from using race in their analysis of diversity. However, within modern sociology race is not viewed as reflective of a genetically like group. Rather it is assumed to be a category shaped by larger social values.

Gender & Sex

In her 1972 book Sex, Gender, and Society, Ann Oakley introduces the concept of gender to sociology. She defines sex as the the biological differences between male and female and gender as the parallel and unequal division between masculinity and femininity in society. Since Oakley's definition, the concept of gender has been extended to the division of labor in companies (Marshall, 1998). Sociologists use "gender" instead of "sex" because it is believed that differences in status and pay are attributable to socially constructed divisions (Smith, 1987). Gendering is socialization and one of the ways humans organize their lives. Researchers have utilized gender to explain job segregation, job marginalization, and the effect of proportionality and workplace culture.


When sociologists work with the category of social class they are working with a slippery concept. Unlike race or gender, people are able to change class. Class refers to a group of people who share common economic positions and opportunities in an economy. Given the relatively similar economic status, they are afforded like opportunities for education, health care, jobs, and other economic benefits. Generally speaking there is an upper, middle, and lower class. Within each of these levels there can be additional sub-classes. For example, in the upper class there can be the wealthy and the middle upper class. In the lower class there can be the working class, poor, and underclass. Where the economic line lies between classes in terms of wages is debated. What is not debated is that most people are unaware of their class. Despite what research data tells us, well over 90% of people consider themselves middle or working class (Heaton, 1987).

Sexual Orientation, Physical Ability, Age & Religion

Other categories are often considered when looking at workplace diversity. Among these are sexual orientation, physical ability, age, and religion. Sexual orientation may be toward the opposite sex (heterosexuality), same sex (homosexuality), both sexes (bisexuality), and neither (asexuality). Some sociologists believe sexuality to be genetic, while others label all types of sexual orientation, including heterosexuality, as socially constructed. Physical ability is also a category to be considered in diversity. Traditionally, disabilities have been used to discriminate against certain types of workers. Impairment is a socially constructed concept that extends beyond the actual limitations of the individual. Ableism is a bias against people with disabilities. The four categories of sexual orientation, physical ability, age, and religion appear less often in corporate diversity mission statements.

The Workplace: Corporations, Nonprofits & the Government

To understand the dynamics of workplace diversity it is necessary to understand the US workforce. Corporations and small businesses still provide the lion's share of jobs in the US economy. However, since the turn of the century nonprofits have employed approximately 10% of the workforce and growth in jobs in the nonprofit sector have been outstripping those of corporate America. During the Great Recession (2007-2009), the private sector lost jobs at a rate of 3.7% per year, while jobs in the nonprofit sector rose at a rate of 1.9%. The highest nonprofit job category is health services; nonprofit entities account for 57% of the health services jobs in America (Salamon, Sokolowski, & Geller, 2012). This is an important issue when considering diversity in the workplace. Though nonprofit organizations do tout their diversity programs, the truth is that many nonprofits and most nonprofit hospitals have religious affiliations. These affiliations contribute to workplace cultures that constrain upward mobility for people who do not share religious affiliations or perspectives on sexuality with their employer.

The government is another fast growing sector of the workforce. According to US Census data from 2011 and the 2010 American Community Survey, 15.3% of the civilian workforce works for federal, state, or local governments. The government as an employer is much more diverse than the corporations and nonprofits. An example of this can be found in the construction industry. Construction upper-tier jobs (construction manager, estimators, and managers/supervisors of trades) in 2010 were comprised of only 4% African Americans, while 12% of city building inspectors, the individuals who inspect the work of construction management, were African American (US Department of Labor & US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011). When considering diversity in the workplace, companies often find themselves between two strong growing sectors of the workforce with very different approaches to diversity.

Further Insights

Fairness & Diversity

It is not enough simply to have proportional representation in the workplace. A poultry business can claim to be diverse because a majority of its workforce is Latino and half its workforce is female. But if all the managers and executives of the company are white men, then it would appear that the company is just taking advantage of inexpensive, unskilled labor concentrated in a local community. A hospital may claim to be diverse because of the international background of its physicians. However, if the cleaning staff is overwhelmingly African American women and the nurses and administrators are predominantly white, then it would not appear to provide a diverse workplace, despite the backgrounds of the resident physicians. A large law firm employing more female lawyers then males may claim to be diverse. Yet, if women attorneys at the firm only earn 70% of their male counterparts' wages, then the fairness of the firm's approach to diversity must be questioned. Job segregation, wage gaps, and job marginalization, not just personnel counts, tell the real story about diversity for sociologists.

Job Segregation

Job segregation exists when a category of jobs is filled primarily by workers of a certain type. Additionally, segregation exists when companies have a two-tiered system wherein jobs are divided up into levels that offer unequal pay, responsibility, security, training, and mobility (Doeringer & Piore, 1971). Job segregation makes it very difficult to show discrimination when the types of work women or minorities do is so different from the types of work white men do. American courts only recognize discrimination for doing the same work and usually only for doing it at the same company. Since the late 1960s this type of discrimination within job-cells has been largely a non-factor in the gender wage gap (Blau, 1977; Groshen, 1991; McNulty, 1967) because the courts are unable to address issues such as why computer programmers, a job more likely to be filled by a man, get paid much more than elementary school teachers, an occupation more likely to be filled by women. Some researchers believe that job segregation may be the largest remaining part of the gender wage gap (Groshen, 1991).

Wage Gaps

A wage gap is a term that signifies differences in pay for like work based on race and gender. The National Committee on Pay Equity reported that in 2012, women were earning an average of 76.5% of what men were earning ("Wage Gap over Time," 2013). Despite claims that since the late twentieth century the overall wage gap has closed between men and women, many argue that the wage gap has only improved for white women. Table 1, derived from the US Current Population Survey (2011) and the National Committee on Pay Equity (2013), shows the change in wage gaps from 1975 and 2010 representing 35 years of improvement for white women. Today, the combination of being the "wrong" gender and the "wrong" race appear to have a double penalty (Greenman, & Xie, 2008). African Americans and Hispanics have lost ground to white women over the past decades. The wage gap between Hispanic women and white women is greater than the wage gap between white men and white women. The rise of service industries and the demise of manufacturing have benefited white women but not all women. Though a wage gap for like work does exist between men and women as well as white Americans and minorities in America, the primary reason for the overall wage gap lies in job segregation and job marginalization.

Table 1: Wage Information by Gender

Year White Men...

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Diversity in the Workplace

Diversity in the workforce is an offshoot of anti-discrimination legislation which seeks to bring workplace harmony, growth, productivity, creativity and profitability to organizations, through the acceptance and harnessing of individual and group differences for the corporate good. There is no single method of implementing and managing diversity that works for all organizations, but there are certain factors that are essential for the creation of an environment that may engender success with diversity strategies.

Keywords Affirmative Action; Diversity; Diversity Management; Diversity Training; Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO)


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