Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Inventing Equal Opportunity

Inventing Equal Opportunity

Frank Dobbin
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 360
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Inventing Equal Opportunity
    Book Description:

    Equal opportunity in the workplace is thought to be the direct legacy of the civil rights and feminist movements and the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Yet, as Frank Dobbin demonstrates, corporate personnel experts--not Congress or the courts--were the ones who determined what equal opportunity meant in practice, designing changes in how employers hire, promote, and fire workers, and ultimately defining what discrimination is, and is not, in the American imagination.

    Dobbin shows how Congress and the courts merely endorsed programs devised by corporate personnel. He traces how the first measures were adopted by military contractors worried that the Kennedy administration would cancel their contracts if they didn't take "affirmative action" to end discrimination. These measures built on existing personnel programs, many designed to prevent bias against unionists. Dobbin follows the changes in the law as personnel experts invented one wave after another of equal opportunity programs. He examines how corporate personnel formalized hiring and promotion practices in the 1970s to eradicate bias by managers; how in the 1980s they answered Ronald Reagan's threat to end affirmative action by recasting their efforts as diversity-management programs; and how the growing presence of women in the newly named human resources profession has contributed to a focus on sexual harassment and work/life issues.

    Inventing Equal Opportunityreveals how the personnel profession devised--and ultimately transformed--our understanding of discrimination.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3089-3
    Subjects: Sociology, Management & Organizational Behavior

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. ONE REGULATING DISCRIMINATION The Paradox of a Weak State
    (pp. 1-21)

    IN 1961, JOHN F. KENNEDY DECREED that companies wanting to do business with the federal government would have to take affirmative action to end discrimination. The year after Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing discrimination in education, housing, public accommodations, and employment. No one could have anticipated the effects of these mandates on the workplace. Not a single sentence remains from the corporate personnel manual of 1960. Firms have changed how they recruit, hire, discipline, evaluate, compensate, and fire workers.

    The agents of change were civil rights activists and then politicians, but the people...

    (pp. 22-40)

    KING DAVID HOLMES GREW UP in Connecticut and worked in a brass mill before he went off to college in the 1940s. When he returned with his college degree in hand at the end of the decade, he went back to the mill: “I came back, went in the employment office, said ‘I want a job.’ I filled out my form—‘College graduate.’” Holmes wanted a job in sales, a job that college men were eligible for. He asked: “Well how about [a job] selling some of this brass?” The personnel officer made no bones about it, they weren’t hiring...

  6. THREE THE END OF JIM CROW The Personnel Arsenal Put to New Purposes
    (pp. 41-74)

    AS A JUNIOR MAJORING IN PSYCHOLOGY at Howard University in 1963, Leon Butler thought he had little chance of a career in industry. The alma mater of Thurgood Marshall, Howard had been established for blacks two years after the end of the Civil War. As Butler explained to theNew York Timesin 1965, since his junior year there had been “a fantastic rise in the number of corporation recruiters coming to campus.” Those recruiters had been going to area schools like George Washington and Georgetown for years. Now for the first time they were visiting historically black colleges. Butler...

  7. FOUR WASHINGTON MEANS BUSINESS Personnel Experts Fashion a System of Compliance
    (pp. 75-100)

    THROUGH THE 1960s MANY EMPLOYERS believed that equal opportunity law would forbid only the most blatant forms of discrimination, and that sanctions would be rare. In the early 1970s, Washington ramped up enforcement, and the Supreme Court interpreted Title VII as covering practices that appeared to be racially neutral. No one knew quite what discrimination was in the eyes of the law. Executives also worried more about social unrest after the urban riots of the late 1960s. According to General Electric’s 1970 equal opportunity missive, there could be found in the “growing militancy and impatience of the minority community, a...

    (pp. 101-132)

    PERSONNEL EXPERTS AT LEADING military contractors designed the equal opportunity programs of the 1960s. At Lockheed’s Marietta, Georgia, plant, they put in nondiscrimination policies to open jobs to women and blacks, set up recruitment programs targeting black high schools, and organized new skill-training programs. Those programs spread widely across industries. By the early 1970s, in-house equal opportunity experts at a handful of firms, like General Electric and IBM, were developing a new set of programs. They put in equal opportunity departments, special performance evaluations, and civil rights grievance procedures, as described in chapter 4, and they were soon promoting a...

    (pp. 133-160)

    RONALD REAGAN RODE INTO OFFICE in 1981 waving the banner of small government. He blamed overregulation for the stagflation of the 1970s, and promised to rein in affirmative action and a range of other regulations. Personnel experts responded by rebranding equal opportunity programs in two ways. Some programs they folded into the new “human resources management,” which in practice looked a lot like classical personnel administration. They grouped new performance evaluation and grievance mechanisms, for instance, with other human resources innovations. They rebranded other programs as part of their new diversity management efforts. Companies should adopt these not to comply...

    (pp. 161-189)

    EARLY IN 1970, air force captain Susan R. Struck, a 28-year-old nurse serving at Camranh Bay in Vietnam, got pregnant. A devout Catholic, the unmarried Captain Struck decided to finish out the pregnancy and give the baby up for adoption. Captain Struck’s plan was to continue her career in the air force. The air force had other plans. Under a policy of firing any employee who became pregnant, the air force discharged Captain Struck. Every year some 1,500 of the air force’s 15,600 women got pregnant and had to leave.¹

    Many American companies had similar policies. Most had dropped their...

    (pp. 190-219)

    THE CITY OF BOCA RATON sits on the Atlantic coast of Florida between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. In the spring of 1990 former city lifeguard Nancy Ewanchew wrote to the head of personnel complaining of harassment. The city disciplined supervisors Bill Terry and David Silverman. Two months later Beth Ann Faragher, who was working her way through college as a lifeguard, quit when she tired of the same two supervisors groping her, talking dirty, and simulating sex acts. Neither Faragher nor Ewanchew had filed formal complaints when they worked for the city, but they later sued under the...

    (pp. 220-234)

    IT WAS CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVISTS who fought for equal opportunity in employment, as well as in education, housing, and public accommodations. It was politicians who outlawed discrimination in private employment. But it was personnel managers who defined what job discrimination was and was not. Some of their experiments were rejected by Congress or the courts, but most everything companies did to promote equal opportunity was cooked up by personnel experts trying to guess how to comply with a law that was a moving target. And they did an astonishing number of things over the years, rethinking every step of the...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 235-260)
    (pp. 261-288)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 289-310)