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Will this historic election reform workplace bigots?31 Oct 2008 12:37 pm

bama-palin.jpgLet’s take a moment to sit back and appreciate what is about the happen tomorrow.

No matter which side you’re on, history will be made — a black president, or a female vice president.

The rule book in this country will surely change. But what about the workplace rulebook?

There is still rampant discrimination in our nation’s offices and factories.

Pregnancy bias is up to record levels. “Working women in the United States filed 65 percent more complaints of pregnancy discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission than they filed in 1992. A sampling of these claims found that complaints filed by women of color and those working in industries dominated by female workers fueled much of this sharp increase,” according to a new study by the National Partnership for Women & Families

Racial discrimination is on the rise. “Racial harassment cases have more than doubled since the early 1990s, hitting an all-time high of 6,977 in 2007. (Blacks file nine out of 10 race harassment charges.) From fiscal 2000 to 2007, the EEOC received 51,000 racial harassment charge filings nationwide, already over the number received during the entire 1990s.”

And I’ve written often about how women only make up about 13 percent of all the top executives positions at the nation’s corporations.

Clearly, we have a long way to go before people of color and women are given the respect they deserve in the workplace, but I wondered if on Wednesday all that would change.

I asked some experts in workplace bias whether the discriminatory environment would be altered by the election?

I must confess to be extremely excited regarding the fact we will either have our first minority President in history OR our first female Vice President in history. I had always hoped that we would move in this direction, but was never sure we would achieve such a result in my lifetime.

I think that one of the best things we have seen during the campaign is recognition of the fact that neither Sen. Obama nor Gov. Palin is really that different from our traditional white male politicians. (I would also include Sen. Clinton in this group given her work during the Democratic primaries.) They are as capable, as articulate, etc. as our traditional leaders. I think this fact should help to eliminate the impact of negative stereotyping based on race or gender in all aspects of our lives.

Workers and employers who may have thought that certain jobs are for males or for whites are beginning to realize how inappropriate those ideas are in the 21st century.

This is truly a historic time. It will be most interesting to see the outcome of Tues. vote and to see whether Pres. Obama or
Pres. McCain will finally expand civil rights protection to include sexual orientation, as a number of states have already done. This is one of the last major categories to be excluded from federal civil rights protection, and it would be nice to see Title VII amended to include this factor.

craver.jpgCharles B. Craver
Freda H. Alverson Professor
George Washington University Law School

I think possibly, and that it depends on who that Black man or woman was. Generally one would quickly say yes, in answer to such a question, but it would definitely depend on the person in office. In this case, I think of Sarah Palin, whose views are not necessarily supportive of women’s rights. Her being in a top position might not be so helpful. I think also of the politician Keys who was sent from Maryland in a last ditch effort to run against Barack Obama for Illinois State Senator. Not all politicians in political offices would necessarily be good for people of color and women.

Having said that, I think that were Barack Obama to become president, it would be helpful in shaping some widespread unconscious negative perceptions about Blacks, which might help reduce discrimination somewhat. The next president will also be likely to appoint some Supreme court justices, who have been increasingly conservative and prone to vote against equal rights for women, people of color, and sexual minorities. Again, if the right person were elected, discrimination might be reduced or recourses for such might be less likely to be experience exclusionary legal decisions.

bell.JPGMyrtle P. Bell, Ph.D.
Associate Editor, Academy of Management Learning & Education
Professional Insights Editor, Equal Opportunities International
University of Texas at Arlington

Having an African American President may help other minorities in the workplace through example. We often only talk about the glass ceiling for women, but it can also exist for minorities in the workplace. Yet, when we observe one of our own (i.e. a woman, minority) excel and make it to the top of the ladder, it can have a dramatic effect on the negative perception of being stymied in the workplace due to discriminatory attitudes and beliefs.

In other words, we begin to believe that we can accomplish great achievements as well, and that negative attitudes and stereotypes will not kill our dreams.

colombo_sherrill.jpgSherril Colombo
Labor & Employment Attorney
Cozen O’Connor

As a general rule, I doubt there will be a sea change in discrimination law or the workplace if Obama becomes president, or if Palin becomes VP. Certainly the victory of Obama would reinforce globally and in the US the fact that all persons are equal and should be judged solely on their individual merit and accomplishments, without artificial barriers.

If Obama wins, and/or if the Democrats achieve a veto-proof majority in both houses of Congress (which would also give them the ability to defeat any filibuster attempts by the Republicans), several bills will certainly pass which will alter the workplace landscape to some degree.

One example which comes immediately to mind is that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 will be amended to prohibit employment discrimination due to sexual orientation and perhaps transgender issues. Some states currently prohibit such discrimination, but the federal law does not.

A second example would be the passage of a bill currently in Congress titled the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would amend the Equal Pay Act to make it significantly easier for women in particular to prove discrimination in pay practices. The House passed that bill in July, but it is currently dead in the Senate. Obama is on record as supporting that bill, and would certainly support the amendment of Title VII concerning sexual orientation.

If McCain/Palin win, the Democrats would likely need a veto-proof majority in both houses to see the above-mentioned bills become law. I would not expect Palin’s election to otherwise alter the law of the workplace in any other manner.

icon_mcnamara.jpgLawrence J. McNamara
Labor and Employment Attorney
Spencer Crain Cubbage Healy & McNamara

Our nation and institutions—including the businesses where we work—have become far less discriminatory and more inclusive over the last few decades. However, many of us still act in ways that unintentionally discriminate.

How bad is it? In this week’s New York Times Nicholas Kristof describes a research study in which California college students, many of them Obama supporters, unconsciously perceived him as less American than the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

My colleague, Joan Reede MD, Harvard Medical School’s Dean for Diversity & Community Partnership, and I recently published a research piece that identifies seven unintentional forms of discriminatory behavior that are common and costly within today’s business environment. Sixty-two percent of minorities and fifty-three percent of women we surveyed experience one or more of these discriminatory behaviors at least monthly; ninety-six percent say these incidents cause them to make negative judgments about whether their organization values equity and fairness; and fifty-three percent say that, when these problems occur, no one confronts or discusses them.

I think the election of a black man or a woman vice president will actually have a fairly dramatic impact on these unconscious, or at least thoughtless, forms of discrimination. Here’s why. Humans are very poor at detecting and recognizing gradual change. We don’t see problems that creep up on us until a crisis happens. After the crisis, when we look back, the pattern seems obvious. We don’t understand how we could have missed it. Some examples? The gradual rise of extremism followed by 911; the gradual rise in global warming followed by Hurricane Katrina; the gradual loosening of financial regulations followed by our current meltdown.

The same inability to see patterns occurs when things are getting better. The roles that blacks and women play in our society have steadily improved, but this election will be the lightning bolt that makes these changes visible. We will look back on Wednesday and see black and women achievers everywhere—at the tops of their professions. And I think this realization will sink deeply into our psyche in ways that will finally defeat at least a few of our unconscious biases.

maxfield.jpgDavid Maxfield
“Influencer: The Power to Change Anything”

My gut feeling is there will be divided opinions and feelings in offices and factories about discrimination in the workplace if there is an African American president or female vice president. However, I think minorities, particularly African Americans, will be viewed in a more favorable light by Caucasian workers, though subtle discrimination will probably continue. I think more minorities will undertake leadership roles at work and feel more comfortable about doing so. I also think minorities and women will feel more empowered about engaging in dialogue in business meetings/conferences and will be taken more seriously by their Caucasian counterparts.

wickliff.jpgA. Martin Wickliff, Jr.
Epstein Becker Green Wickliff & Hall

I will include other contributions from experts as they come in, but take a moment to share your thoughts.

Will this election transform that workplace hater into a workplace healer?

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