White Men Can Help It

Dukes claimed that despite more than six years of hard work and excellent performance reviews, she was denied the training she needed to advance to a higher salaried position, and she wasn’t alone. Five other women went to court with Dukes, seeking class-action status for their lawsuit alleging that Wal-Mart discriminated against women in pay and promotion. The plaintiffs argued that women made up about two-thirds of the hourly workforce at their company, but less than a third of salaried managers. They claimed the company had a sex-segregated work setting, where a “tap on the shoulder” system of promotion permitted managers to make staffing decisions with little company oversight.

William T. Bielby, professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, served as an expert witness in the case, testifying on the plaintiffs’ behalf. He said he believed Wal-Mart gave managers too much discretion and let them rely on too many subjective factors in hiring, promotion and pay. In an unregulated atmosphere, people can revert to stereotypes in making decisions.

Six years after the case commenced, Bloomberg Businessweek published an article by Michael Orey titled “White Men Can’t Help It,” stating Bielby believed white men will inevitably slight women and minorities because they just can’t help themselves. Days before oral arguments began, the sociologist’s hometown paper referenced his participation as an expert witness in the trial and stated he had a prominent theory on unconscious bias. Businessweek stated if an employer is faced with a class-action based on gender or race, there is at least a 50 percent chance that plaintiffs will cite Bielby’s unconscious bias theory moving forward. However, this isn’t a theory Bielby takes ownership of or believes in.

“On the one hand, there is an issue of social cognition: We all take cognitive shortcuts when we perceive the world — it’s how we’re wired,” Bielby said. “That’s not the issue. The issue is, ‘What is it about this organization that shapes how decisions are being made?’”

In a case like Wal-Mart’s, Bielby said it’s not a matter of unconscious bias; it’s about whether the company adopts practices that create and sustain bias or whether it implements those that minimize it instead. He said organizations must be sure there are systems in place so people making hiring and promoting decisions receive timely, relevant and objective information that forces them to consider individuals’ qualifications and preferences rather than rely on gut feelings or what has been appropriate for a certain kind of job in the past.

Bielby said he gets involved in cases because organizations have subjective, discretionary decision-making policies and practices about hiring, job assignments and promotions. These companies do not provide effective oversight on how diversity fits into retention. They have a loose connection between formal diversity statements about nondiscrimination and actual HR practices. The result is confusion, stereotyping and adherence to the status quo.

He said many organizations may articulate that diversity is everyone’s responsibility and business, but for it to work, it has to connect to business responsibility structures so it’s not just rhetoric. “When diversity is everybody’s business and no one’s specifically, it can easily become nobody’s business,” he said. “It’s very important that powerful white men become part of those structural solutions, not just signing onto the company’s overarching diversity principles. Companies need diversity task forces with chief diversity officers, and powerful white men who are connected to those kinds of organizational arrangements have to participate actively in them.”