Inventing Equal Opportunity

Inventing Equal Opportunity

Inventing Equal Opportunity

Inventing Equal Opportunity


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 Opportunity reveals how the personnel profession devised--and ultimately transformed--our understanding of discrimination.


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 who invented equal opportunity—decided what it would mean on the ground—were personnel managers. After the Civil Rights Act was passed, social movement activists played bit roles. Members of Congress, judges, federal officials, and presidents had parts in the drama, but it was personnel experts who concocted equal opportunity programs, and later diversity management programs, in the context of changing ideas about discrimination. Public officials approved some new programs and rejected others, but it was personnel experts who put the programs together. Some of the changes were visible and dramatic, as when firms struck rules reserving good jobs for white men or wrote rules against trading jobs for sex. But many of the changes were subtle, as when firms began advertising every open job or set up written performance evaluation systems, and their origins in civil rights law were soon forgotten.

If the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had read, “It shall be unlawful for employers to operate without written job descriptions, diversity training programs, and sexual harassment grievance procedures,” firms would have seen the revolution coming. Instead, the act outlawed discrimination in broad strokes. Most managers never imagined that the law applied to their companies. Yet once enforcement was expanded in the early 1970s, personnel experts were able to sketch equal opportunity programs with a free hand precisely because Congress had presented . . .

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