Skip to page content
Office of the Secretary
Bookmark and Share

U.S. Department of Labor Futurework
  Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century
---division bar --

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

What Do Activist Groups Do?

We have painted a picture of groups that come together, use the language of social movements, draw on their passion to sustain their commitment through the cycles of activism, and work under an umbrella of management support that they take pains to manage. The stage is set to ask, "what do these groups actually do?" There are also lurking questions about whether anything ever changes. In this section, we present some of the accomplishments that the activists themselves cite, including their assessment that the very existence of these groups represents an accomplishment in its own right. We argue that it is difficult for an outsider to decide which are small versus large wins. Instead, we appeal to the activists' own sense of the scope of their accomplishments, their alternate satisfaction and frustration with their progress, and their broader ultimate goals.

Activists' Accomplishments

Activists regarded an increase in awareness of diversity issues as a necessary first step toward change. As a human resources representative acknowledged:

I think little wins are just people having new understanding, people having conversations with people who are different. Having new understanding and putting that new understanding into practice.

Similarly, the founder of Women at PineCo commented on the change in climate:

[I] hope that there's a certain amount of empowerment that I've built up, people feel a little bit safer, women feel a little bit safer being who they are and knowing when there is discrimination and trying to do something about it or at least [being able to] talk to someone about it.

Activists frequently emphasized that just the existence of their groups made a difference, for themselves as members and for other observers. The act of meeting as a group was itself extremely important in realizing change, because these groups provided the context for a shift in attributions by activists and other attendees who came to events. As a woman in WOW explained:

Primarily we’re a support group in that we just want to come and we want to talk and express issues and just have a forum where we can talk to each other, because there’s not many women here and we tend to be diluted and dispersed and it’s nice to sort of just get some clarity on issues. But then secondarily we did feel like if there were issues that we wanted to take up, or we wanted to vocalize some group sentiment, that we sort of had a forum in which we could do that.

Being in a group setting allowed these activists to share their frustrations and provided a context in which they mutually established the legitimacy of their grievances. As mentioned previously, the women in WOW came to realize during their lunch meetings how the culture on the project was not one with which they were comfortable. When we pushed them on issues and actions, they often insisted first on the importance of their group's very existence.

The groups had engaged in a number of actions. These reflected the opportunistic character of their activism, discussed above. The general concerns that each group embraced as part of their charter – making the workforce more representative, making the environment more comfortable for traditionally marginalized and less powerful employees, improving retention and promotion opportunities, changing the style of working and the allocation of power – guided their actions but were so broad that direct, incremental, and purposive steps were difficult to develop. Table 2 summarizes the wide range of actions that were cited across our interviews.

Table 2

Accomplishments Cited by Activists, by Group

[Text Version]



African-American Caucus

· Pressing the company to appoint black managers in the emerging South African operation.

· Lobbying to have a person of color appointed to the Board of Directors.

· Designing events and speaker programs for black history month.

Gay and Lesbian Alliance

· Maintaining and monitoring a discussion bulletin board for members.

· Researching the costs and structure of gay partner benefits and working with human resources professionals to offer them to employees.

· Lobbying successfully to move the annual sales conference from Colorado to California, after Colorado passed an amendment denying civil rights protections on the basis of sexual orientation.

· Encouraging participation on their database about community marches and letter campaigns to legislators.

Women at PineCo

· Hosting company-wide events for Daughters' Day.

· Designing events and speaker programs for women's history month.

· Lobbying top executives to release statistics on numbers of women considered, hired, and retained across all positions.

· Organizing a contingent of women to attend a pro-choice march in Washington, D.C under the company banner.

Diversity Project

· Developing a more effective college recruiting program to attract more students of color.

· Conducting mandatory quarterly workshops on various diversity-related topics, including hiring, international marketing, and collusion.

· Hosting monthly lunchtime discussion groups on timely topics such as the Rodney King case and the L.A. riots.

· Creating an informal mentoring program for men and women of color and white women.

· Establishing an electronic diversity bulletin board and database.

Diversity Reps

· Stocking food in the refrigerator instead of providing after-hour sit-down dinners, to reduce "face time" pressures on working parents and people with outside obligations.

· Creating an informal mentoring program for men and women of color and white women.

· Showing movies with diversity-related themes and hosting discussion afterwards.

· Designing and distributing a PineCo T-shirt to symbolize multi-racial diversity.

Women of Wonderland

· Lobbying for the inclusion of administrative assistants' eligibility in a bonus plan.

· Meeting with senior managers on their project to discuss and change the tenor of meetings.

Difficulty in Imposing an External Yardstick

It is difficult to arrange the list of actions in Table 2 in terms of their significance or impact. While the idea of small wins is helpful, it is difficult to array this list of accomplishments in terms of their smallness or largeness. For example, creating a T-shirt may seem simple and "merely" symbolic, but it represented a win to those who worked on it for a number of reasons. They explained that it took a sustained team effort to go from design to production to distribution of the T-shirts. They emphasized that their company was a place where people often wore T-shirts to work and where company-specific T-shirts abounded for specific products, conferences, or sports teams. Having a diversity T-shirt represented a good fit with the local culture and conveyed a reminder of diversity in a visible, familiar, and comfortable way.

At the same time, a seemingly big win like getting a person of color onto the Board left less enthusiasm in its wake. The absence of a person of color on the Board had been salient to many activists and was a clear-cut issue to address. It was raised in the spirit that top executives could best exhibit their commitment to diversity, if it was indeed genuine, by including diverse people in their own constellation. However, once such a person was selected, a few activists expressed concern that this change would not measurably change the day-to-day culture and the subtle instances of racism experienced by employees. They were left unsure about what issue to tackle next, because the overarching problem of everyday racism could not be easily decomposed into small next steps.

Activists' Ambivalence and Broader Visions.

The goals or specific action agendas of the diversity effort were difficult for many people to articulate in advance. Instead, the goals and actions appeared to be endogenous to the process of change. People discovered meaningful actions and outcomes along the way. In addition, the interpretation of the goals and actions was also emergent. Being immersed within the process of change, it was difficult for activists to know what ramifications their actions would have in the long term. Nor was it possible to assess what consequences these various actions taken together would have. They simultaneously described their actions as big wins in and of themselves and as small wins en route to bigger, if only vaguely envisioned changes.

Thus, activists wavered on how to gauge their own progress. They alternately expressed pride in their accomplishments and frustration that not enough had happened or that recent victories did not reap as much fundamental change as they might have hoped. As one activist noted:

The situation is so critical that there's this feeling of wanting to do everything at once, and yet also knowing that we have to take small steps.

They recognized the irony that their actions could create the appearance without the reality of change and leave top executives complacent and satisfied:

Three years later you’ve been suggesting yourself to the ends of the earth, but you’re not making a hard commitment based on what you really want to get from this. You’re not making a commitment to change the demographics, what you’re making a commitment to do is talk about it and to come up with programs that talk about it...and in most cases it’s literally a way of not doing anything.

Nonetheless, almost everyone with whom we spoke identified larger goals toward which they hoped they were progressing. A common vision was that the workforce at the company would come to look truly representative of the diversity in society at all levels of the company. As one woman stated, "I'd like to walk down the halls and see more minorities. I'd like to see more minorities at all levels and more women in the engineering division." Additionally, when asked about the future, several African-American individuals mused about the possibility of becoming the CEO of the company themselves. They speculated about whether "someone who looked like me" could occupy that office.

While almost everyone wanted a demographically more diverse workforce in terms of numbers, many individuals foresaw that change in terms of demographics could lead to an even greater transformation of the organization. As one African-American woman explained, "Diversity can't be on paper, it has to be day to day." Many activists spoke about how the culture would need to change and basic assumptions underlying that culture would have to shift. The following visions articulated by individuals addressed broader changes for which they continued to hope. The visions they articulated were not blurry, but specific. Interestingly, these changes do not speak directly to diversity, but reflect the ways in which people think that business might be run differently it if were run by different people, if the power structure were more fundamentally altered, and if ways of working and producing reflected a broader conception of social welfare:

Thirty hour weeks. Personally I think forty hour weeks are like the max...So I always say definitely even more flexibility in terms of hours. Just more support for fewer hours and respect for that. More men taking advantage of paternity leave, taking their maximum amount. More men taking time off.

My wildest dream at the self-managing teams where there isn't a hierarchy, an organizational structure and there aren't managers who tell other people what to do. I would like to see people reviewed by their peers not by their boss, and the same for performance for raises and promotions. Maybe we don't have promotions in that kind of structure, people have new responsibilities.

It's an empowered organization, where there are infrastructures in place – mediation, arbitration boards – such that if there's an impasse and you know 'I feel like I'm getting screwed,' there's a neutral place that's truly neutral, where you can go and have it laid out.... You know management cannot just act with impunity.

Previous Section Next Section