Multiple Marginality

Date01 September 2013
Published date01 September 2013
AuthorG. L. A. Harris
Subject MatterArticles
Administration & Society
45(7) 775 –808
© 2012 SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/0095399712445872
2445872HarrisAdministration & Society
© 2012 SAGE Publications
1Portland State University, OR, USA
Corresponding Author:
G. L. A. Harris, Mark O. Hatfield School of Government, College of Urban and Public Affairs,
Portland State University, 670 S Urban Center Portland, OR 97207-0751, USA.
Multiple Marginality:
How the Disproportionate
Assignment of Women
and Minorities to Manage
Diversity Programs
Reinforces and Multiplies
Their Marginality
G. L. A. Harris1
Achieving diversity in the workplace has become the antidote for what ails
many organizations. Specifically for public organizations, although many genu-
inely pursue diversity to achieve public good, some use diversity for more
questionable means. An exploratory study on local governments revealed that
women and minorities, relative to White men, are disproportionately assigned
to manage diversity programs. Using the research on groups, a theory of
multiple marginality was developed to explicate the rationale(s) for these pro-
grams’ overrepresentation of women and minorities that further marginalizes
these already marginalized groups. The adverse effects, the policy implica-
tions, and future research are discussed.
multiple marginality, women, minorities, diversity programs, local government
776 Administration & Society 45(7)
Managing diversity, or similarly named initiatives, has become common-
place in some organizations today without a sufficiently clear definition of
diversity or a clear justification for such practices. Some organizations have
awkwardly joined the diversity bandwagon without any apparent direction as
to how to go about achieving diversity or what doing so will mean for them.
For this purpose, diversity connotes an instrument for achieving equity and
social justice for the public good. Yet, many private sector organizations have
deftly made the business case for implementing diversity programs as a way
of remaining competitive (Cox, 1993; Loden & Rosener, 1991). It is the eco-
nomic goals and the importance of meeting the bottom line that serve as the
prime motive for private sector organizations’ pursuit of diversity. For these
organizations, diversity has become an imperative for their very survival
(Mathews, 1998).
However, some public sector organizations have yet to unearth this sure
footing. Although research abounds about the importance of diversity (Cox,
1993, 2001; Duggett & Bertucci, 2001; Golembiewski, 1995; Kalev, Dobbin,
& Kelly, 2006; Naff & Kellough, 2001; Thomas, 1991), others have shown
that when not well managed, how such programs can fall short of the potential
for success (Hall & Stevenson, 2007; Naff & Kellough, 2001; Reskin,
McBrier, & Kmec, 1999; Riccucci, 1997; Soni, 2000). They lack adequate
articulation about why diversity matters and how it can contribute to their
bottom line. Public sector organizations also remain uncertain about what
defines their bottom line. Although keenly aware of the obligation for social
justice and equity in the delivery of public services (Duggett & Bertucci,
2001), public sector organizations must be equally mindful of the need to
remain legitimate by supporting initiatives like diversity (Golembiewski,
1995) especially in light of the demographic shifts in their constituencies.
Some believe that the reasons for public sector organizations’ support for such
initiatives are political because of the perceived and actual obligations to do so
and the possible public outcry if they do not (Reskin et al., 1999).
But, an important distinction must be made between achieving diversity
and adhering to the goals of affirmative action, a controversial yet still impor-
tant tool for achieving diversity. Public sector and government contractor
private sector organizations are legally bound to comply with the mandates of
affirmative action (Appel, Gray, & Loy, 2005; Pynes, 2009). But there is no
such legal mandate for diversity. Affirmative action refers to a composite of
federal, state, local, and administrative edicts (Holzer & Neumark, 2000;
Pynes, 2009; Riccucci, 1997) to bridge, in this case, the gap in employment
between the majority (White males) and women and minorities; diversity,
however, represents an alternative to affirmative action (Anderson, 2004)
Harris 777
that is not only less controversial in nature, it is also unbounded by legal and
enforcement requirements. One positive outgrowth of affirmative action
though has been to bring about diversity (American Psychological Association
[APA], 2003; Badgett, 1999; Konrad & Linnehan, 1999). Yet, despite the
institution of affirmative action, discriminatory practices persist in such forms
as the glass ceiling (Mani, 1997; Pynes, 2009; U.S. General Accountability
Office, 2003), job segregation (Guy & Newman, 2005; Holzer & Neumark,
2000), and wage disparities (Crosby, 2004; Holzer & Neumark, 2000; Meier
& Wilkins, 2002; West & Curtis, 2006). This is a paradox when it becomes
necessary to utilize legislation to bring about positive effects through affirma-
tive action, yet doing so means avoiding the ill effects of the policy because of
the undue attention that it brings to women and minorities (Harris, 2010;
Schneider & Northcraft, 1999).
Many well-meaning public sector organizations do genuinely seek to
diversify their workforces. But others, as this article will demonstrate, appear
to be merely interested in projecting the socially desirable facade of diversity
by strategically assigning women and minorities to manage diversity pro-
grams. According to Riccucci (1997), this action not only serves as a scheme
for organizations to evade the mandates of affirmative action but also obfus-
cates the real intent of such a policy, that is, to eradicate discrimination in
employment (Nkomo, 1992; Wise, 2005). Thus, implementing diversity pro-
grams and concentrating women and minorities for their administration are
how some organizations address the pressures they encounter to achieve
broader workplace diversity. The appeal for diversity has become a conve-
nient and systematic means for violating affirmative action.
Using the findings of an exploratory study on why local governments
(county and municipalities) craft diversity initiatives, this article also exam-
ines why a disproportionate number of women and minorities are assigned to
manage them. The evidence suggests that the disproportionate assignment of
women and minorities to manage organizations’ diversity programs serves
only to further marginalize these already marginalized groups. First, there is
relatively little research on this subject in public administration, although
there is a wealth of research in the education literature, for example, regard-
ing faculty of color (Callahan & Tomaszewski, 2007; Smith & Calasanti,
2005; Viernes Turner, 2002). Scholars like Wise (2005), Nkomo (1992), and
Riccucci (1997) also note the clever disguises that organizations use to cir-
cumvent dealing with the real issue of discrimination by creating diversity
programs. Second, based on the research on groups, a theoretical framework
has been developed to demonstrate how majority groups engage in marginal-
ization when they are forced to share valuable resources with perceived

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