Not too long ago, the workplace might have seemed an odd environment in which to think about the need to move forward. After all, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial discrimination in employment, and today most companies openly profess a belief in the value and importance of diversity. But as the accounts from fashion, journalism, media, business, and of course academia have shown us, most industries remain places where racial disparities continue to persist.
Research suggests that the only way to create more equitable, racially diverse workplaces is to be explicit and purposeful about it. Good intentions, political statements, and well wishes do not magically create environments that are fair to and equitable for employees of color.
These disparities are widespread and persist in organization after organization, industry after industry. Black workers are 13 percent of the U.S. population, but constitute 3 percent of employees at the top eight tech companies, 5 percent of all doctors, and less than 1 percent of all Fortune 500 CEOs. Latinx and Asian American workers are similarly underrepresented, though research shows that the issues that plague workers of color tend to be most pronounced among Black employees. Studies show that overt racial discrimination, exclusionary social networks, differences in educational access, and wage disparities contribute to Black workers’ difficulties accessing, thriving in, and ascending in many occupational settings. These differences do not just occur by happenstance or accident—even in workplaces that profess a commitment to racial diversity, employers are less likely to refer Black candidates for jobs, call back applicants whose names seem to signal a Black identity, or support qualified Black employees for promotion.
So how do we solve these problems? Research suggests that the only way to create more equitable, racially diverse workplaces is to be explicit and purposeful about it. Good intentions, political statements, and well wishes do not magically create environments that are fair to and equitable for employees of color. Instead, companies have to take active steps to become these spaces.
The good news is that research does provide some pathways for how companies can do better. For instance, studies show that organizations tend to be most effective in moving the needle when they specifically task managers with creating more racial diversity, provide those managers with resources, and hold them accountable for their results. Companies should also collect data and set specific metrics for the goals they wish to achieve. Additionally, it is also important for companies to consider the culture and atmosphere of the environments in which they ask employees to work. Hiring a few underrepresented workers into a space where racist jokes, taunts, and slurs are tolerated all but guarantees that those workers will not stay long. Finally, organizations have to take responsibility for making these changes collective efforts, rather than leaving it up to Black professionals to do the “equity work” of making companies more accessible and available to communities of color.
The recent protests and renewed attention to racial justice have cast an important spotlight on these issues of racial equity. But it is past time for organizations to take these issues more seriously. Workers of color should not face these systemic patterns of discrimination and exclusion in multiple industries and organizations. It is urgent that organizations take proactive steps to better reflect an increasingly multiracial society.
Editor’s Note: An edited version of this essay appeared in the November 2020 issue of Washington University magazine.