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Transforming Discriminatory Corporate Cultures: This is Not Just Women's Work


Cheryl Lyn Wade


St. John's University - School of Law


Maryland Law Review, Vol. 65, No. 2, 2006
St. John's Legal Studies Research Paper No. 06-0041

Abstract:     
In this essay I explore how CEOs affect corporate culture, and suggest that it is possible for them to use their considerable influence on corporate culture to establish workplace race and gender equity. I consider the relationship between the personality, power and identity of a public company's chief executive officer, and the establishment of a corporate culture in which race and sex discrimination do not thrive. For men to behave more responsibly toward their female colleagues, they must work in a corporate culture that supports and affirms gender equity advocacy. Male employees and managers will adapt to the corporate culture in order to survive and succeed within that culture. I explore how American culture influences the cultures of companies operating within it. Superficial discussions of race and gender in American society inspire explicit diversity discussions within corporate culture that are equally superficial. These corporate diversity discussions are misleading because they imply that companies work hard to ensure race and gender equity. The explicit message within corporate cultures is that hiring, promotion and pay decisions are based on merit. Men and whites are promoted more frequently and earn more, and the implied contextual message is that these decisions are based on merit. The implication is that even with diversity training, diversity officers, and codes of conduct that prohibit discrimination, whites and men climb to the top of the corporate hierarchy anyway. It is an implied message of white male superiority.

Without attending to the discrimination that women continue to face, an increase in the number of women in the workplace will only increase the number of problems they encounter. Increased diversity in the absence of anti-discrimination efforts will only increase instances of sexual harassment, and situations where women receive fewer promotions and less pay than their male counterparts for the same work. More diverse and equitable corporate workplaces are only possible if men change the way they run public companies.

Corporate policy that is perceived as benefiting women and minorities is likely to be viewed as biased, undesirable and improper, and therefore, unfair and illegitimate. Employees will not respect or adhere to such policies. The nature of the relationship between a strong CEO and corporate culture, however, offers hope for inspiring workplace race and gender equity. A CEO's sincere commitment to workplace race and gender equity is a prerequisite to achieving fairness for women and minority employees. Once such commitment is in place, the power and influence of a strong CEO makes cultural transformation possible.

In the U.S., a low-context culture where communication systems are explicit, the overt information and messages about racism and sexism, to the extent they exist, decry the subordination of women and people of color. The explicit message in the U.S. regarding anti-discrimination is misleadingly benign. The explicit message is that racism and sexism are wrong, and because the discussion is limited and superficial, many whites and men believe that the problems of racism and sexism are no longer significant. Many believe the issues are resolved.

What is communicated about racism and sexism within corporate culture? Corporate cultures are high context. Messages are communicated implicitly, and the corporate culture and corporate norms which are largely homogenous constrain the behavior of individuals within these cultures. Because corporations operate as high-context cultures, most of the communication about race and gender equity is implicit. In other words, the context provides most of the information about race and gender within the corporate culture. There are, however, explicit messages about race and gender diversity within the corporate culture, but like the discourse in American society in general on this subject, the messages are superficial. Even worse, the messages transmitted in corporate cultures about equal employment opportunity are misleading. Web sites proclaiming the value of diversity, diversity training programs and communications with shareholders and employees portray corporate cultures that are intolerant to racism and sexism.

The explicit discourse about racism and sexism in American society, and the explicit but misleading communication within corporate culture on these issues combine dangerously with the implicit communication systems of the high-context corporate culture. The implicit messages about race and gender within the high-context corporate culture emerge from a context where whites and men earn more and are promoted more frequently than people of color and women. The superficial discussion of race and gender in American society inspires explicit diversity discussions within corporate culture that are equally superficial. These corporate diversity discussions are misleading because they imply that companies work hard to ensure race and gender equity. The implied contextual message, however, is that men and whites are promoted more frequently and earn more, and that these decisions are based on merit. The implication is that even with diversity training, diversity officers, and codes of conduct that prohibit discrimination, whites and men climb to the top of the corporate hierarchy anyway. It is an implied message of white male supremacy.

Individuals in high-context cultures are likely to avoid or ignore conflicts. This means that in high-context corporate cultures, men and women, whites and people of color are likely to ignore and avoid the conflict situations that arise between them. This is especially unfortunate because the corporate workplace is the one place in American society where people of different races come together.

I examine aspects of the relationship between women of color and the white men who manage public companies in order to reveal potential insight into the lack of leadership in matters of race and gender equity on the part of this nation's chief executives.

Chief executives are not likely to understand that much of the discrimination that occurs against women and minority employees, consumers and suppliers is rooted in unconscious bias. One aspect of this unconscious bias is what I will call the "corporate expectation bias." This unconscious bias affects the expectations that white male managers have for the potential corporate success of white women and men of color. The bias, however, is most vividly illustrated by exploring the expectations that white male corporate managers have for women of color within the corporation. The corporate expectation bias is an unconscious expectation that women of color are best suited for certain kinds of work that require skills and characteristics that are not valued in the corporate context. The corporate expectation bias is more difficult to negate. It is rooted in the complex historical role women of color have played as workers in the United States. Like racial stereotypes the expectation bias most adversely affects the people about whom chief executives and corporate managers know the least. Like racial stereotypes, the expectation bias provides white male corporate managers with incomplete information about people of color.

The expectation bias is not easily negated by women of color because it is rooted in social reality. To the extent there is any interaction between white male corporate managers and women of color, it is likely to occur when she cares for his children, his elderly parents, or cleans his home. The women who perform these services for his friends and neighbors are also women of color. De facto racial segregation in American society, coupled with employment realities for women of color create expectations on the part of the whites who employ them. At least on some unconscious level, some will expect women of color to be able caretakers, good cleaners, and willing sex workers. These expectations, as they relate to women of color, will not inspire confidence in them as corporate workers who belong near or at the top of corporate hierarchies.

I demonstrate that cultural transformation in this regard can take place, how it can be accomplished, and explore some of the reasons why it has not occurred. I leave the work of determining how to motivate CEOs to engage in this type of cultural transformation for subsequent articles.

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Date posted: March 23, 2006  

Suggested Citation

Wade, Cheryl Lyn, Transforming Discriminatory Corporate Cultures: This is Not Just Women's Work. Maryland Law Review, Vol. 65, No. 2, 2006; St. John's Legal Studies Research Paper No. 06-0041. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=892391

Contact Information

Cheryl Lyn Wade (Contact Author)
St. John's University - School of Law ( email )
8000 Utopia Parkway
Law School Building, Room 4-09
Jamaica, NY 11439
United States
718-990-6015 (Phone)
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