But it’s hard to dismiss Dr. Fuller completely. A growing body of academic work substantiates his ideas about the presence of rankism and its destructive impact. Research by Toni Gregory, formerly the research director of the American Institute for Managing Diversity (AIMD) who now teaches diversity management at the Fielding Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif., strongly shows that the ability to create a diverse workplace depends on building up the mental and emotional health of the people who work there, from the executives on down. “Bob Fuller is right on target,” says Dr. Gregory, “because his ‘rankism’ is one of the key blocks to what [AIMD founder] Roosevelt Thomas calls diversity-maturity: that emotional growth which a diverse workplace requires.”
It’s easy to forget how recent and tenuous a phenomenon the “rainbow workplace” is. After all, many of us have grown accustomed to workplaces with both women and men and with people of mixed ethnicity, in the same way that residents of New York, London, Paris, and San Francisco are used to seeing interracial couples on the streets. But if it hadn’t been for the affirmative action movement of the 1970s, and the legal challenges posed to corporations like AT&T, Exxon, and Sears (especially by the Federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission), many people of color and women would not have their professional jobs today.
“I hear it over and over,” says Nancy Ramsey, coauthor of The Futures of Women: Scenarios for the 21st Century (Perseus, 1996). “‘If there weren’t a diversity policy, I wouldn’t be here.’”
That’s why women and people of color often support affirmative action, even if they feel ambivalent about it. They know that without some kind of oversight system, as Ms. Ramsey puts it, “we’d still have white-bread companies.” And that’s why the pressure has been so great to prove that diversity policies do lead to better results.
Proof, alas, has been difficult to come by. In the early years of academic research — the 1980s and early 1990s — most studies tended, as MIT Sloan School of Management professor Thomas Kochan said recently, to “get a bunch of MBA students or college sophomores into diverse groups and homogeneous groups, and see which groups outperformed the other.” It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that researchers began to study diversity in real-world companies. Harvard Business School professors David Thomas and John Gabarro interviewed employees and managers in three Boston-based high-tech companies with a good track record for retaining high-level women and people of color. (The results appeared in their 1999 book Breaking Through: The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America, published by Harvard Business School Press). Then, the New York–based Catalyst Group, founded by the late Felice N. Schwartz (best known for coining the phrase “mommy track”) published an ongoing set of studies called Women in Corporate Leadership. These studies analyzed the careers of high-level women executives and the attitudes that helped shape their success.
Then in 2003 came the controversial research published by the Diversity Research Network. Convened by MIT’s Professor Kochan, this group of nine faculty members from Harvard, Wharton, Rutgers, Berkeley, and the University of Illinois set out to compare the performance of diverse teams and homogeneous teams in companies and organizations. The research project was funded by a nonprofit consortium called the Business Opportunities for Leadership Diversity (BOLD) Initiative, chaired by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and headed by activist Beatrice Fitzpatrick (who is best known for founding the American Woman’s Economic Development Corporation, which helps women entrepreneurs). The BOLD Initiative’s goal is to promote minorities and women into positions of leadership.