Advancing Equitable Diversity in the Workplace

The UMass Amherst Center for Employment Equity documents progress and promotes accountability toward the goals in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In 1966, 91 percent of all managers and executives in private sector firms were white men. By 2018, that number had dropped to 47 percent. This impressive progress was the result of two processes—the increased diversity of the labor force and societal resistance to discrimination. Yet questions remain about how far the country has come in addressing workplace diversity and discrimination, and how employers and regulators respond when issues are brought to light.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) first began collecting data from private sector firms in 1966, shortly after it was established by the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Widely considered one of the most important pieces of legislation of the last century, the Act in Title VII specifically banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity), and national origin.

Don Tomaskovic-Devey, executive director of the Center for Employment Equity
Don Tomaskovic-Devey, Center for Employment Equity executive director.

In 2018, UMass Amherst launched the Center for Employment Equity (CEE) to document the EEOC’s progress toward reaching its goals of equitable diversity in the workplace. Founded and co-directed by Don Tomaskovic-Devey, professor of sociology, and Lee Badgett and Fidan Kurtulus, both professors of economics, CEE works to provide scientifically careful analyses and curated data to citizens, employers, and policymakers.

Tomaskovic-Devey, CEE executive director and a research collaborator with the EEOC since 2001, recently discussed the CEE’s work and what CEE has learned studying the state of the country’s workplaces.

How does the CEE’s research shed light on progress toward achieving equitable diversity in the workplace?

CEE supports multiple studies—including firm and city case studies of what works to promote employment equity—but our greatest strength has been in developing "big" data generated by the EEOC. As a regulatory agency, the EEOC is not very data focused. We see our mission as both providing data on discrimination and workplace diversity to multiple publics and nudging the regulatory community into a more scientific data-driven approach to challenging employment discrimination.

The CEE website provides open access for anyone to explore analytics on discrimination, employment diversity, and wage inequalities using our state-of-the-art data visualization tools. We cover a broad range of topics. Some of our current research relates to Silicon Valley tech firms, Hispanic access to executive jobs, sexual harassment, and detailed dives on LGBTQ and pregnancy discrimination.

What has the CEE’s research found about why people file discrimination charges, and what are typical outcomes for those who do so?

Our most recent research focuses on discrimination charges. We know that the vast majority of people who experience discrimination never file a formal charge against their employer. These findings confirm past research, but what we have discovered is that there is a great deal of variation in terms of who files charges and under what circumstances. Perhaps most striking, we find much higher rates of charge filing from people with disabilities, suggesting a stronger sense of their rights under the law. When we look across judicial contexts, we see that in states where courts are more likely to negotiate changes in workplace practices with employers, there are higher rates of discrimination charging on the bases of disability, race, sex, age, and national origin. This confirms past findings from small-sample qualitative research that the most common motive among people who file discrimination charges is to fix workplace for themselves and others. 

Sadly, we find that the majority of people who do file charges experience employer retaliation, and 63 percent eventually lose their jobs. Only a small minority are awarded or negotiate monetary damages from their employer, and those who do average only about $10,000 in compensation. Even fewer get some kind of agreement from their employer to try to improve the workplace climate, which appears to be the most common motive for filing in the first place. It's a pretty depressing story: Filing a discrimination complaint leads to vilification at work, job loss for most, and small or no legal redress.

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data, 2012–2016.

Do certain industries or parts of the country have a better track record than others at addressing discrimination?

We don’t yet have clear answers on this. We do know that in some states—including Wisconsin, Connecticut, and the District of Columbia—changes in workplace practices are a more likely outcome of charges, but we know very little about what makes some employers more discriminatory than others. Our research on sexual harassment suggests that this form of discrimination is more likely in male-dominated firms and industries. Conversely, pregnancy discrimination is more likely in workplaces with predominately female labor forces. There really is so much research on employer behavior that still needs to be done.   

Overall, how does the state of the workplaces today compare to 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed?

This is a great question. Our focus on contemporary employment equity and discrimination charges can give the misleading impression of no progress. That is simply not true. In 1964, women and minorities were nearly completely excluded from many firms and almost all good jobs. That is no longer the case. We now know that progress toward an equal employment labor market won’t be achieved simply through changes in law, but requires pressure on firms from governments, social movements, and internal stakeholders within firms. Most of the progress since the Civil Rights Act stalled by the 1990s as political pressure on firms dissipated. Legal pressure alone is simply not enough. In the contemporary landscape, we suspect that the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements have done more to push firms to examine their workplace climates than the law.   

What steps should regulators and employers take to achieve equitable diversity?

Here CEE has come to some strong conclusions. Both regulators and employers need to adopt data-driven analysis of equity trends and what works. Current regulatory practice is stuck in an outmoded legal framework and many firms simply comply with toothless legal mandates. It is time to shake up the regulatory recipe and for firms to lead rather than simply follow the law.


This story was originally published in December 2021.