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Diversity in the Workplace

workplace photo Few people would openly argue the benefits of diversity in the workplace; new faces and new ideas offer greater opportunity for creative solutions on the job. As immigration and migration patterns in the U.S. increase diversity within communities, public services are increasingly called upon to demonstrate cultural competency and to reflect the demographics of the people they serve.

The biggest debates of the past few decades have been about how to achieve diversity in a fair and legal way. The Jim Crow laws of the 1950s created a "separate but equal" approach to civil rights in the South. Activists pointed out how racial segregation rarely established equality, but instead preserved discrimination.

Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s sparked heated conflict over integration, sometimes ending in violence. Affirmative action programs were first proposed as a way to "level the playing field" and to counter injustices of generations of discrimination in education and employment. Today, few affirmative action employment policies remain in place. Lawsuits alleging reverse discrimination have discouraged policy-makers from enforcing this controversial civil rights legislation.

Affirmative action can be a very, very positive tool if it is used properly... it was never designed to give unqualified people opportunity. It was designed, however, to make sure that qualified people were not excluded.

By the 1960s, women were questioning barriers to their own progress, such as low wages, gender discrimination and harassment. The Women's Rights Movement, which began prior to the Civil War as a branch of civil rights activism, grew rapidly as affirmative action programs were pressed to include women and not just minorities. Sexual harassment became recognized as a form of discrimination in 1986, propelling the debate about social versus political rights to the forefront.

Gains made by women entering traditionally male professions have been slow, and even slower for women of color. The White House Affirmative Action Review 2000 states that "Even after adjusting for characteristics that affect earnings (such as years of education and work experience), African Americans and women are paid less than their white male counterparts. The average income for Hispanic women with college degrees is less than the average for white men with high school degrees." The U.S. Census Bureau report shows that in 1963, women earned 59 cents for every dollar earned by men. In 1999, women earn 73 cents for every dollar men earn.

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