Posted on December 15, 2017

Workplaces Are More Segregated Than 40 Years Ago. What Gives?

Kristen Bahler, Money, December 15, 2017


Sociologists from Stanford University and Harvard Business School recently looked at more than 40 years of data on the racial makeup of every large private-sector workplace in the U.S., and found that while there are more people of color across occupations, individual employers are still pretty homogenous and actually more divided than they were in the ’70s.


Most workers, particularly the white ones, are operating under the baseline assumption that companies, while not perfectly impervious to racial bias, have made measurable strides in ramping up diversity over the last several decades.

It’s a reasonable position to take: after all, our country is certainly becoming more diverse as a whole. In 2016, the U.S. population was about 61% white, compared to 76% in 1990, and 81% in 1975, according to Census Bureau estimates.

But while almost everyone knows non-white sales reps, marketing directors, and every other type of professional in today’s workforce, there are still more non-white workers in low-wage janitorial, kitchen, and service roles that each office relies on. And since a wave of outsourcing has led entire industries to tap outside contractors to fill these jobs, many of the employees who take them aren’t even on the same payroll as the people whose desks they clean, meals they serve, and packages they deliver.

It’s diversity with an asterisk. And what’s worse, new companies don’t seem to be better at attracting, retaining and promoting people of color than their predecessors were, according to Ferguson.

“If everyone in the mail room is black, and all the white people are computer programmers, it doesn’t matter if the labor force as a whole is a lot more diverse,” he says.

The implications are hard to ignore. For companies, this persistent lack of representation leads to a scarcity of the ideas, backgrounds, and experiences every employer claims to value.

For individuals, this divide quietly manifests into every facet of workplace policy — from hiring bias that makes it less likely for people with “black sounding names” to get an interview, to workplace dress codes that ban natural hairstyles. Most troubling, though, is the growing racial pay gap that points to the average black man earning just 70% of what a white man makes, and the average black woman earning 82% of a white woman’s paycheck.


Unconscious bias training, the courses many Fortune 500 companies use to help employees alter their assumptions about race, has as many critics as it does supporters. And the new solution du jour, “algorithmic hiring,” a favorite tool of recruitment platforms that claim to negate application bias by taking humans out of the process, also has its shortcomings.

“Algorithms are helping to get a broader set of resumes in front of the hiring manager, without question,” says Erica Volini, Deloitte’s Human Capital Leader. “But if you don’t have managers who are still thinking on a more inclusive basis, the technology can only get you so far.”