Diversity in the Workforce: Industry Versus Academia


Despite decades of interest in diversifying science and engineering (S&E), the overwhelming majority of science and engineering faculty remain white males (see the Minority Scientists Network article, ” Going Downhill”). Many blame the lack of minority S&E professors on what the Building Engineering and Science Talent ( BEST) February 2004 report, A Bridge for All: Higher Education Design Principles to Broaden Participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, calls an “ivory tower” mentality: the tendency of colleges to pursue developed excellence instead of seeking out and nurturing talent. “Colleges and universities have found it difficult to create a learning environment that both honors excellence and embraces diversity,” it states.

But academia isn’t the only game around for scientists and engineers of color. Industry offers higher salaries and–many believe–a friendlier atmosphere for minorities. Critics, however, contend that the situation in industry is not that simple.

Making Diversity a Priority

Xerox Corporation has been a pioneer for diversity issues the past 30 years. Xerox recruits at minority conferences, historically black colleges and universities, and Hispanic-serving institutions, as well as elite predominantly white institutions. Part of Xerox’s strategy is establishing clear goals. At least half of Xerox’s candidates must be minority, and at least half of its offers should go to minority candidates. “Minority diversity culture is truly ingrained within the organization,” said Dr. Sophie Vandebroek, chief engineer of Xerox Corporation and vice president of the Xerox Engineering Center. Vandebroek helps ensure that a diverse pool of scientists and engineers is recruited.

Last year Xerox ranked as the 13th best employer for minorities by magazine. Xerox’s diversity culture stems from its roots in Rochester, New York. Xerox, Eastman Kodak (number 34 on Fortune’s list), Bausch & Lomb, several smaller technology companies, and some Rochester-area universities collectively pushed workforce diversity before it became a buzzword, according to Bill McKee, a Xerox public relations manager. These corporations and other diversity-leading companies often use mentoring programs, caucus groups for underrepresented races, workshops, and school outreach programs.

Some academic programs are beginning to use these same techniques to diversify their S&E faculties. The BEST report cited two such “exemplary” programs, the Compact for Faculty Diversity and Preparing Future Faculty. Dr. Anne MacLachlan, senior researcher for the University of California, Berkeley’s Minority Ph.D. Project, said industry generally does a much better job of organizing workshops for employees to improve their working relationships. Policies that improve department relations on the whole, MacLachlan contends, also help faculty of color feel more welcome.

MacLachlan cited the University of California, Berkeley’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences department as an example of the right approach to increasing faculty diversity. The department has diversified the search committee and expanded its job postings to include more periodicals and campuses and therefore to increase its chances of recruiting more minorities. The department chair meets with each new hire and has monthly luncheons with new faculty members to discuss issues confidentially. The meetings also, MacLachlan said, promote group cohesion. But whereas such programs are exceptional in academia, in business they are becoming the rule.

Diversity Is Good for Business

“Industry is much farther along in diversifying its workforce because it’s not just seen as a moral or ethical imperative,” Dr. Willie Pearson, chair of Georgia Tech’s School of History, Technology, and Society, said. “It’s just seen as being good for business, of having the best talent, regardless of the gender and ethnic makeup of that talent,” he continued. Nowadays, diversity means business. People of color account for 18% ($1.3 trillion a year) of the nation’s spending, according to the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth.

Next Wave columnist Sonya Summerour Clemmons, founder of SSC Enterprises and director of business development for MediVas LLC, a San Diego-based biotechnology company, believes that industry is generally more hospitable to people of color. SSC Enterprises helps academic, government, and industrial institutions recruit, retain, and transition scientists and engineers of color. “I am taken more seriously as a businessperson than as an academic scholar,” she revealed. This, said Clemmons, is because “what matters most to businesses are bottom-line results, whereas in academia, a lot of folks still spend precious time worrying about whether or not minorities are intellectually inferior, when in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.”

Industry, praised MacLachlan, does a better job of defining, punishing, and ultimately preventing intolerable behaviors, such as acts of racism and sexism. Industry also pays more attention to what Clemmons calls “window dressing” policies–policies that affect their public image but may not run very deep–than academia, because any negative publicity may hurt a business’s bottom line.

In academia, the lack of minority S&E professors is obvious, but “the farther up the ladder you go [in industry], you will notice that academia and industry begin to look alike,” notes Clemmons. Even diversity-leader Xerox, where 30% of employees and 37% of new hires are minorities, has comparatively few minorities in technical fields (25%) and at the executive and managerial levels (22%). These numbers are much better than those typically achieved at universities, but minorities in S&E posts are still underrepresented relative to the general employee population. And although approximately 25% of U.S. workers at Xerox, Eastman Kodak, and Bausch & Lomb were minorities in 2001, about 42% of those jobs were office or clerical positions, according to Rochester’snewspaper. Yet these companies do better than most in hiring racially diverse staff in general and in S&E specifically. Says Vandebroek, “I think within industry we are at the crossroads, because right now I have a significant problem finding the right people to come to Xerox who have a diverse background.”

Clarifying Misconceptions About Scientists and Engineers of Color

Scientists and engineers of color who have better professional pedigrees tend to have an advantage over other scientists and engineers from underrepresented groups. Pearson said that academic departments often look for “cutting edge” specialties, which eliminates many scientists–often minorities–who are not at elite schools. MacLachlan noted that some departments will accept candidates from top schools who aren’t exact matches, but they usually don’t accept similar candidates from less prestigious schools. “Questions about qualifications are issues minorities must face repeatedly, while whites do not,” Clemmons said. Every minority scientist and engineer that she knows works “twice as hard to get half as far.” Indeed, Pearson suggested, without equivalent access to top-rated programs, most scientists and engineers of color will continue to be overlooked for faculty positions–unless the hiring pool is widened.

Industry has made an effort to widen the hiring pool, and these efforts seem to have yielded a more diverse, albeit bottom-heavy, minority workforce. Academic institutions, clearly, have done less well. Part of the reason academia’s efforts to diversify often have failed, Clemmons suggested, is that minorities are rarely members of the peer networks that college and university faculties use to replenish themselves. Many companies–such as Xerox–aggressively seek out minority candidates for open positions, something that academic institutions do far less energetically, if they do it at all. By aggressively seeking out minority candidates, diversity-oriented companies have learned to overcome the fact that most minority candidates are not found within traditional hiring networks. By broadening the scope of faculty searches, academic science departments could, similarly, diversify their faculties without lowering standards.

Despite years of legislative and cultural progress, MacLachlan believes that things have only now turned around enough to enable real change. Pearson stressed that although centralized leadership gives corporations a potency that faculties may lack, any diversity effort requires a commitment at the local–even personal–level. “Quite frankly, I don’t think academia or companies would need ?diversity’ initiatives if prejudice and preferential treatment toward nonminority groups weren’t still so prevalent,” said Clemmons. “That’s where the real paradigm shift needs to occur.”

Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet. He may be reached at .

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