Our country is undeniably becoming the home to an ever-increasing number of individuals from distinct racial and ethnic backgrounds. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States 2001, between 1980 and 2000, while the country’s white population grew by 9%, the African American population increased by 28%, the Native American population increased by 55%, the Hispanic population by 122% and the Asian population grew by more than 190%. The abstract goes on to state that Asians and Native Americans already account for more than half of California’s population. Forty-five percent of Texans self-identify as members of minority groups, as do one in three residents of New York, New Jersey and Florida.

Analyzing the 2010 Census, more than half of the growth in the total U.S. population between 2000 and 2010 was because of a 43% increase in both the Hispanic and the Asian population. This made Hispanics, 16%, the undisputed largest minority population in the United States, eclipsing Blacks/African Americans at 13%. The group that self-identifies as non-Hispanic whites grew at an even slower 1%. The total proportion of U.S. whites declined from 69% to 64% and is expected to decline even further during the upcoming 2020 Census. 

After a lifetime of trying to describe the American experience as a melting pot of assimilation, today’s workplace is repeatedly being described as a salad bowl, where individuals retain their differences and value their uniqueness. America has come from a place where equal employment laws and residual affirmative action mandates represented the bare minimum when it came to compliance, because the new push for “Diversity and Inclusion” goes well beyond what is legally required and tries to create a culture of acceptance and promoting differences, while shining a disapproving light on instances of discrimination, harassment and retaliation.

Has Pittsburgh evolved beyond the need for such concerns as diversity? Is the playing field in 2019 level? On Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019, Mayor Bill Peduto’s office and the city’s Gender Equality Commission released a white paper entitled “Pittsburgh’s Inequality Across Gender and Race,” written by five PhD researchers from the University of Pittsburgh (Howell, J, Goodkind, S, Jacobs, L, Branson, D & Miller, L). The essence of the report is that if you’re white, your health, education and employment experience is about average to what you could expect if you lived in any comparable city in the United States. However, if you’re black, your health, education and employment prospects are worse than just about any comparable U.S. city.

Dale Shoemaker, in an online PublicSource article, quotes co-author Junia Howell, “… if Black residents got up today and left and moved to … any other (comparable) city in the U.S., automatically by just moving, their life expectancy would go up, their income would go up, their educational opportunities for their children would go up as well as their employment opportunities.” The researcher compared Pittsburgh to approximately 90 other cities with similar large black and white populations.

Some highlights from the white paper include the fact that infant mortality for blacks is six times higher than whites in Pittsburgh, which is worse than most similar cities: 13 deaths per 1,000 births compared to two deaths per 1,000 births. In Pittsburgh, blacks and other non-white females make 54 to 59 cents for every dollar a white male makes. In Pittsburgh, the black adult mortality rate is higher than 98% of similar cities. Pittsburgh police referral is high for all students but disproportionately affects black students. Black women and children are more likely to live in poverty in Pittsburgh than comparable cities. Pittsburgh has an extremely high occupational segregation. Black men work maintenance/janitorial jobs, while white men work construction.

How do we affect change? Laws are on the books aimed at preventing and correcting discrimination, harassment and retaliation in the workplace. Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 even has an entire federal agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), charged with providing equal opportunities, and they function here in Pittsburgh as well. Yet, intolerable inequities still exist. We tried Executive Order 11246 “Affirmative Action” laws, which reached out to previously disadvantaged groups to eliminate barriers to hiring and advancement. That backfired with fierce resentment on both sides, and an endless parade of legal challenges whittled away any altruistic benefits that it may have attained. 

Unlike affirmative action, diversity is a voluntary, broader and more inclusive concept of valuing people of different races, religions, national origins, gender, sexual orientation, economic status and other differentiators in the workplace. It hinges on the premise that organizations and companies are most effective when they leverage and include the views and abilities of employees of all backgrounds. The goal of diversity is to foster a culture of mutual respect, leading to a more productive workplace. 

The benefits of having a diverse workplace include (accumulated from multiple sources): 

  1. Increases the ability to service and establish a rapport with a variety of customers of different cultures, religions, races and languages.
  2. Higher productivity because employee differences and backgrounds are valued, and they are encouraged to work to their strength.
  3. Building and improving the company’s brand by improving the public image.
  4. A positive and healthy work environment by leading to an atmosphere of respect, mutual understanding, tolerance and enhanced teamwork.
  5. Creativity, innovation and new ideas.
  6. Opportunity for employees to learn to grow and develop when challenged with new ideas and perspectives. Diversity may lead to increased adaptability and flexibility in changing demographics.
  7. Greater employee retention because they feel valued and respected.
  8. A more civil workplace that promotes fairness, decreases conflicts and reduces the number of complaints.
  9. A sense of social responsibility.
  10. Attracting the best talent by drawing from the widest pool of potential employees.
  11. Improving the employees’ and workplace morale.

The transitional period to a diverse workplace can have challenges and barriers:

  1. Language and cultural barriers can inhibit effective communication initially.
  2. Initial resistance to change because of unconscious bias.
  3. Increased conflict in the workplace and tensions based on employee’s differences.
  4. Stereotypes based on preconceived judgments.
  5. Prejudices based on unfair and unfounded opinions.
  6. Discrimination and harassment based on stereotypes and prejudices.
  7. Perceived preferential treatment of one group at the expense of another.
  8. Concern about the cost from training and initial accommodations.

Risk to employers who choose not to be diverse:

  1. Employers who are not diverse may be faced with lawsuits for discrimination and harassment due to poor treatment of the few underrepresented employees they do have.
  2. Employers may lose customers who gravitate to businesses who employ people that they can better relate to.
  3. Tensions in the workplace leading to conflicts and low productivity of employees who are stressed by an unfriendly or unaccepting environment
  4. Lose out on the richness of collaboration and debate from individuals with unique points of view forged by their life’s struggles

Diversity is a solution, not a source for anxiety or concern: 

  1. It can help employers with gender issues by encouraging equal opportunity, eliminating improper language, avoiding stereotypes and encouraging supervisory and management roles for women.
  2. Diversity is the solution to race issues by recognizing that racial discrimination can exist between employees of the same or different races, the same or different groups, complexion differences (light/dark skin color) and among blacks from Africa vs. American descendants of slaves.
  3. Diversity can provide employees with reasonable accommodations based on religious practices, allowing employees to display religious imagery in their workplace cubicles or offices and taking into consideration religious holidays on the work schedule whenever possible.
  4. Diversity can help provide resources and physical accessibility to employees with limitations. Diversity training can increase sensitivity and avoid making generalizations about the capabilities of individuals based on appearance because disabilities are not “one size fits all.”
  5. Diversity can sensitize the workforce to accept accents and mannerisms different from their own. It will help employees feel proud of their heritage or national origin and recognize the benefits of ethnic diversity.
  6. Diversity can embrace sexual orientation preferences and allow everyone to feel comfortable in the workplace.

The city of Pittsburgh is growing and rising fast to a tech and industrial hub, but not all boats are rising. The gentrification of parts of our city leaves beautiful gleaming high-rises for the new inhabitants, but physically evicts and displaces the former. An entire industry has successfully grown around attracting new highly educated young people to Pittsburgh. What about investing in the ones we already have? Our Journey to Medicine Academic Mentorship Program, over the past 11 years, has shown that with education and proper mentoring, boys who could have easily dropped out of school or ended up in Shuman Center can have the trajectory of their life changed and they can become among the best students in their classes. Let’s choose to develop educational strategies in our departments, offices, workplaces, schools and in our city that will forever erase the false legacy of “separate but equal” and make Pittsburgh one.

Author profile
William Simmons, MD

Dr. Simmons is associate professor, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Department of Anesthesiology, UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside Hospital, immediate past president, Gateway Medical Society, Inc., and chair, Journey to Medicine Academic Mentorship Program.