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The concept of workplace equity gets a thumbs-up from most businesses and organizations, but insufficient resources to make it actually happen, according to a Boston College School of Social Work-led national study.
The recently released study, a joint effort between BCSSW’s Work Equity Initiative and the Society for Human Resource Management, the world’s largest human resources association, provides an in-depth look at the impact of diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI, initiatives in United States workplaces.
Using a nationally representative sample of 1,062 organizations, National Study on Workplace Equity researchers reported that one-quarter of the companies have experienced gender bias (28 percent), racial bias (27 percent), or bias against older workers (26 percent) in the past two years. But although 64 percent of the organizations studied view DEI as important or very important, almost the same percentage—62—indicated that little or no resources are prioritized for DEI policies and practices.
According to the WEI leadership team—Assistant Professor Samuel Bradley Jr., Professor Emerita Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, and Faculty Fellow Kathleen Christensen—the national study is designed to examine the root causes of inequities that can be embedded into organizations’ employment systems. The WEI’s long-term goal, say the trio, is to create tools that support employers and practitioners in workplace equity.
Samuel Bradley Jr., Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, and Kathleen Christensen led the BC School of Social Work study on workplace DEI policies.(Photos by Caitlin Cunningham, left, and Gary Wayne Gilbert, center)
Instead of conceptualizing the level of equity as being constant across the workplace, and throughout employees’ tenure at their respective jobs, the WEI leadership opted to take a more targeted approach by scrutinizing 10 different employment systems that typically are utilized within organizations. Those with the most equity are, in order, recruitment and hiring; compensation and benefits; and orientation and onboarding (the processes by which new hires are integrated into the organization). The three employment systems with the least equity are: resources and supports (10th out of 10); job structures; and supervision and mentoring.
“Traditionally, DEI work has a tendency toward heavy focus on awareness building and training, through programs such as trainings in implicit bias, anti-harassment and diversity, and the names certain groups prefer to be identified by,” said Bradley. “While those are certainly important, research has shown that these approaches can be ineffective or counterproductive. I can count the number of people in a group, but that doesn’t tell me how included they feel. The benchmarks we use are trickier to get at, but are more revealing.”
The WEI seeks to collaborate with employers in select organizations to conduct research and apply the findings to practical application through the Equity Innovation Lab, a project within the WEI. The lab, which has worked alongside organizations such as the United Way and is currently partnered with Catholic Charities Boston, aims to utilize its innovative framework to help organizations tackle difficult DEI problems in the workplace.
The survey used in the National Study on Workplace Equity also is the means through which the lab works with organizations, said Bradley, who noted that the lab’s goal is to expand its offerings nationally. “Now that we’ve collected this data in partnership with SHRM, we will be able to help other organizations assess the equity of their employment systems. Our hope is to create a set of helpful toolkits that guide them from insight to action.”
The National Study on Workplace Equity represents a classic application of social work philosophy and practice in what might seems an unfamiliar context—but actually isn’t, say the WEI co-leaders: Social work’s emphasis on evidence-based practice is as useful in helping an organization confront DEI issues as it is in resolving individual and familial problems related to behavioral or mental health issues. Whatever the setting, social work practitioners help clients understand that it is in their best interest to take an active role in improving the situation.
“Social work education can help us to understand how organizations can be made more equitable, which can be good for the overall organization and the well-being of employees,” said Bradley. “So, in the WEI project, we’re talking about getting at root causes to eliminate workplace inequities—like through flexible working arrangements for all employees, not just some. We emphasize that more flexible job structuring makes for equitable working conditions, and this translates to more engaged employees, and a more successful organization.
“Through data and benchmarking tools that we make available, organizations can take the initiative to self-examine and customize solutions to their own issues and challenges.”
The lack of equity in certain areas occurs when there is no intentionality in measuring and planning for issues of workplace and equity, noted Bradley, Pitt-Catsouphes, and Christensen. “While there is a lot of good work happening in the DEI space, we are trying to help get at the overall experience of equity within employment systems. Without a plan for innovating in these employment systems the state of equity in any organization may be left to chance.”
BCSSW’s efforts at promoting workplace equity also are taking place in the classroom. In the fall of 2021, the school launched a certificate program, Leaders for Equity and Justice in the Workplace, to improve equity in the workplace for women, people of color, and other marginalized employees. Students earn the certificate by completing three courses, Re-thinking Diversity, Dismantling Organizational Bias, and Creating the Inclusive Workplace.
Bradley noted that, in the school’s early years, its curriculum included such courses as Labor Relations and Principles of Employment Administration. “The idea that social workers can have an impact on workers and the workplace has been around for a long time, and it’s been part of how we educate our students here.”
The National Study on Workplace Equity can be accessed via the BCSSW Center for Social Innovation, of which Pitt-Catsouphes is co-founder, at bc.edu/csi.
Sean Smith | University Communications | February 2023