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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now even in this uncertain economy in this country, there are some things we know for sure, and this week we're going to explore one of them: The workplace is becoming more diverse.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

The percentages of Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans in the workforce are growing at a much faster rate than whites.

INSKEEP: And diversity has become a big buzz word in corporate and big business too. And if this is any measure of its prominence, it's all over YouTube..

(Soundbite of video montage)

Unidentified Man #2: Find out how a diverse workforce can benefit your business. Discover how to access untapped human resources, reach new markets and increase sales.

Unidentified Woman #1: Diversity is really about the differences that we all bring to the workplace - whether it's our gender, it's our language, it's our culture, it's our height.

Unidentified Woman #2: We're going to have to have all colors and sizes and shapes and genders and persuasions and religions at the table because there's no monopoly on talent.

Unidentified Man #2: We got to change the attitude...

AMOS: And you notice, they're not just talking about women and minorities, corporate diversity is about young and old, gay and straight, disabled workers, we even heard the word height in that montage. Some people also described diversity as a safe word.

Professor KIMBERLE CRENSHAW (Law, UCLA and Columbia University): Diversity more or less came into common parlance as a way of framing equal opportunity policies that was acceptable, not quite as controversial.

AMOS: I spoke with legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw who says diversity is a much less threatening word than affirmative action.

Prof. CRENSHAW: Diversity includes affirmative action goals, but I think the difference is that affirmative action initially was an idea of affirmatively pushing equality. Not simply saying too bad that we did that a long time ago, but we're not going to do anything about the consequences of it.

As we move away from those traditional kind of arguments to diversity, the focus of the argument trains our attention on the benefits of diversity. For companies, often it's framed in terms of there are markets that are untapped and if we really want to broaden the scope of our product, we need to have talent from the different communities that are traditionally underrepresented here.

AMOS: So how do you know if a company is truly making progress? If you are analyzing a company, what would you look for?

Prof. CRENSHAW: Most companies do have some reasonable representation, at least at entry level jobs. The real question is how open is the pipeline, and does it go all the way up to the top? And many companies that have good reputations for having great diversity programs still have difficulty in mentoring and creating opportunities, so those folks who are at the middle actually make it all the way up to the penthouse.

Or you can have a company that celebrates Mother's Day, right, but the question is do they have family leave policies, do they have flex time? So you can have a cosmetic policy but not have a structural one.

AMOS: You know, in the '60s when affirmative action became law, many companies complied because they had to.

Prof. CRENSHAW: Right.

AMOS: Now, research shows that diversity pays, because it's a reflection of society. So why are we still talking about this?

Prof. CRENSHAW: It's not surprising that we're still grappling with this. Quite frankly, the legal context has changed significantly. So weve moved from a period where companies thought they had to do it in order to comply to a period where they thought, well maybe we dont really have to worry about litigation, but perhaps they're other benefits for us in terms of market share, to a period now where a lot of companies sometimes worry that if they do too much then they're subject to suit from those who are claiming reverse discrimination. So it's a very complicated environment for companies right now.

AMOS: And here's another complication; there's been a number of news reports showing that in this economy minorities, particularly blacks and Hispanics, are disproportionately affected. The New York Times ran a story about recent black college graduates, who were what the article said, whitening their resumes. They were altering their names to make them sound whiter.

Prof. CRENSHAW: Well, absolutely. I mean - and this is again where the conversation about diversity, as opposed to remedying discrimination creates this huge gap, because there's a recognition that ones chances of even getting an interview are increased if the assumption is that you may in fact might be white. And there's a lot of studies that really back that up. So that's still in the background. As long as that's in the background they're going to be differential opportunities for people based on race. The real question is: Can we move diversity polices away from simply celebrating difference and focusing on this reality that still exists? This downturn in the economy is forcing us to revisit these questions.

AMOS: Thank you very much, Kimberle Crenshaw.

Prof. CRENSHAW: Thank you.

AMOS: Kimberle Crenshaw is a professor of law at UCLA and at Columbia University in New York.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And we'll continue our discussions on diversity tomorrow when we'll hear about a company that tries to push its managers by tying their bonuses to a score card on diversity.

If I'm a manager here, what are the things that I have to do to get that 25 percent of the bonus?

Unidentified Woman: Good question. You ready for a two-hour dissertation on this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: It could take that, although we promise we're not going to take that long tomorrow.

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