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U.S. Department of Labor Futurework
  Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century
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Passion with an Umbrella:
Grassroots Activism in the Workplace

Maureen Scully and Amy Segal

Sloan School of Management
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Task Force Working Paper #WP13

Prepared for the May 25-26, 1999, conference “Symposium on Changing Employment Relations and New Institutions of Representation”

September 1, 1999

Social Movement Issue

Changes centered around gender and/or racial equity are particularly appropriate for probing social movement activism in organizations. Power imbalances based on social identity are imported into the workplace from society. Men and women of color and white women are often clustered at the bottom levels of the corporate organizational hierarchy where pay is lower and opportunities for advancement and influence over corporate direction are not as great. The top tiers of organizations are composed of a rather homogeneous set of individuals: primarily white heterosexual males from upper class backgrounds (Broderick & Milkovich, 1991; Kanter, 1977, 1987; Useem, 1984). Conflict results because individuals who are not well represented in this group seek access to the power and benefits bestowed by these top level positions or even seek a leveling of differences. Additionally, the organizational environment or culture that is created by the dominance of a homogeneous group is often not supportive and accepting of individuals whose perspectives and styles may diverge from this dominant group, resulting in sheer hostility toward these individuals in the worst case scenario, or a general feeling of not belonging in the absence of overt animosity (Cockburn, 1991; Jackall, 1988; Kanter, 1977; Morgan, 1986; Morrison, et al., 1987). Thus, issues of injustice and inequality emerge in the workplace on the basis of social identity issues. These multiple dimensions of conflict in the workplace today are subsumed under the umbrella of “diversity.” Activists engaged in diversity-related efforts contest inequalities in power, opportunities, inclusion, and comfort in the organization.

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