CHANGE FROM BELOW: FORMING A WOMEN’S CAUCUS
by Carla Lofberg Valenta
If the executive offices of the company where you work have the aspect of a “men’s club,” then it is not very likely that any “affirmative action” will originate from within the “club.” For it is the nature of organizations as well as individuals to develop comfortable and self-serving habits that, as long as they remain unchallenged, will justify themselves as the “right” way of doing things. Occasionally these habits are changed voluntarily; more often, pressure is required.
Even if your company has an equal employment opportunity (EEO) officer, the recruitment of women and minority groups and their promotion in more than token numbers to decision-making slots will not necessarily occur. Very often, the EEO officer is caught in the middle. He or she, appointed by management ostensibly to promote employee interests, is ultimately accountable to management.
Even if your company has an affirmative action plan (AAP) for the recruitment, promotion, and full “utilization” of women and minority groups, little or no action may have been taken. In the muzzy language of an AAP, goals are often generalized in broad terms and accountability is limited so vaguely as to be unenforceable.
Where can pressure originate to bring about change? Look to yourselves. You can form a pressure group—a caucus—that at the very least can act as a consciousness-raiser of your interests and at the most can serve as a catalyst for policy change within the company.
At the Brookings Institution, a research institution in Washington, D.C., we looked to ourselves and formed a women’s caucus, successfully. Following are some guidelines based on that experience.
Fortunately, legislation providing for equal opportunity in employment is already on the books, a result of the continuing civil rights drive begun in the 1960’s. That’s the good news. Now for the bad: Much remains to be done about enforcement of this legislation. In pressuring for equitable treatment, you should do more than appeal to management’s sense of justice and fair play. Cite legislation and then act on strategies outlined here that facilitate enforcement.
Prospects for success are brightest if your company has an affirmative action plan and an official responsible for its implementation. Employers having 50 or more employees and receiving $50,000 or more in annual federal funding are required by Revised Order No. 4 (administered by the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance) to formulate a written AAP.
Briefly, such a plan consists of an analysis of the under- or over-representation within the company’s departments of women and minority groups and the procedures to rectify any imbalances. Furthermore, the employer is instructed to make every “good faith effort required to transform the programs from paper commitments to equal employment opportunity.”
If your company does have an AAP, employees forming a caucus are protected very generally by a provision in the Code of Federal Regulations governing federal subcontractors and their affirmative action responsibilities. That provision ensures that “no person intimidates, threatens, coerces, or discriminates against any individual for the purpose of interfering with the filing of a complaint, furnishing information, or assisting or participating in any manner in an investigation, compliance review, hearing, or any other activity related to the administration of the order or any other Federal, State or local laws requiring equal employment opportunity” [41 CFR 60-1.32 ).
If your company has not been unionized but you and other employees are organizing for that purpose, you are protected by the National Labor Relations Act which cites as an unfair labor practice the dismissal or harassment of employees for their organizing activities.
On the other hand, if your company has not been unionized or has not been required to devise an AAP, then you are incurring considerable risk in forming a pressure group, because you have no specified statutory protection covering such an activity.
Now, let’s get organized. The life of a caucus breaks down into two general phases: 1) organizing the caucus itself, and 2) pursuing the group’s objectives. The following are broad strategies that apply to both phases of the process. Your company’s distinguishing features—its work, size, and organizational structure, as well as its singular culture and protocol—will require your adjusting and fine-tuning of the described strategies.
Phase I: Organizing the caucus
Forming a caucus is very serious business. It represents, in essence, a political act, because it takes power to change things and you are vying for a share of the power and the rights traditionally held by management. Since change rarely occurs without some friction, a caucus must be ready to apply pressure continuously, no matter how long it takes for change to occur and no matter how wearying the friction becomes. Or the group can lower its sights a bit and act primarily as a sensitizer of its constituents’ problems and interests by, for example, sponsoring a speakers series or maintaining a special-interest bulletin board, among other activities.
Whatever the purpose of the caucus, there must exist “just cause” for organizing it that will be wholeheartedly supported by women throughout your company over an indefinite period of time. To find out if there is legitimate cause, arrange a meeting—closed, if necessary—of a small group of women representing all departments in your company to discuss the possibility of forming a caucus.
It is a good idea to invite to this and future meetings a representative of a women’s organization or a member of the women’s caucus at another company who can advise on organizing strategies and who can bring fresh perspective to your situation. Keep these meetings confidential, since some women will feel uncomfortable talking about what until then they may have considered unthinkable. Ask the members of the group to get the reactions of their fellow employees to the idea of a caucus, and hold another meeting to report on them.
A positive reaction should lead to meetings to which all women in the company are invited. It is crucial that all women—no matter their age, race, status, or department—be made welcome. Otherwise, a group that was overlooked at the outset will be increasingly difficult to recruit as the organizing process builds up steam. A large group neglected by the caucus could be used against it by management in the classic tactic of divide and conquer.
Despite your best efforts, there will be some women hostile to a caucus, because of concern for job security or the feeling that the move for equality has come too late for them. Do not return the hostility. Let them know they are being represented, they are needed, and they are welcome.
Announce in advance a one—or two—item agenda. Make certain the problems of all departments and levels are discussed at some time. Also stick to the announced time frame, as support staffers must keep strict hours. The lunch hour is a good time to meet; otherwise annual leave must be taken, which will cut down attendance.
Arrange as many general meetings as seem necessary. Publicize them. Distribute a questionnaire designed to sound out the nature, range, and depth of complaints.
Since any change you might achieve may be modest and long in coming, it is important to discuss the measure of commitment the majority of women must bring to the caucus. Take a long-range view of your endeavor. It’s at this stage that a caucus can die stillborn.
When you are certain of the commitment of your group, then you can specify goals and design a program. The purpose of the caucus might be hiring, promotion, and full utilization of women and minorities; the program becomes cooperating with management to enforce the plan.
Until this stage, the group can function without a formal structure. But once your purpose and program have been defined, leaders must be elected who can assume responsibility for achieving your objectives and provide a contact point for management.
The composition of your steering committee is the key to your effectiveness. It should be a broadly representative body of between eight and twelve members. It should include luminaries as well as support staffers. Women ranking high in the company who serve on the steering committee will help legitimize the caucus in the eyes of management. If possible, elect such a woman as your chair.
Again, commitment should be stressed, since much time (off the job) will be spent meeting, researching, and writing by all members.
If chance favors the prepared mind, change absolutely requires it. All steering committee members must do their homework before meeting with management. This means studying the legislation, executive orders, federal regulations, and court decisions bearing on equal employment opportunity and affirmative action—for starters, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Executive Order 11246 as amended, and Revised Order No. 4.
Likewise, all members should be completely familiar with the company’s policies, current and earlier versions of its AAP, annual reports, the employee manual, and data on salary ranges, job descriptions, etc. If possible, some steering committee members should attend any of the EEO workshops that now abound.
Thorough preparation will establish your credibility with management; conversely, lack of preparation means the kiss of death to your cause or, possibly worse, its trivialization. Management will be waiting for you to trip up on the minute particulars so they won’t have to take seriously your larger goals. The burden of proof is on you, since it is you who are challenging both the status quo and management’s performance on affirmative action.
It is vital to defuse any personality conflicts and disagreements about strategies among yourselves. A united front bolstered by prepared minds will be perceived as formidable. Finally, it goes without saying that you must keep up the performance of your jobs. A lowering of job performance while engaged in caucus activities gives management legitimate cause for dismissing an individual who is both a challenger to the system and a poor worker.
Phase II: Pursuing your objectives
You are now ready to meet with management. First, request a meeting with your EEO officer. Set the agenda yourselves. Signal from the outset your cooperativeness by stating that you look forward to the meeting “not as an opportunity for confrontation but as an occasion for sharing the concerns we all have about optimal employment conditions here at XYZ Company.” Whatever the agenda—a discussion of the AAP itself is a practical way to start—follow up with a memo restating the points of general agreement and suggest a date for a future meeting.
Use the proceedings of your meetings with the EEO officer as the agenda for a meeting with top and mid-level management. Present documented examples of under- or over-representation of women and minorities at various levels in all departments (charts and graphs make the picture plainer), unfair treatment, and possible cases or patterns of discrimination. (At Brookings, even our anecdotes had to be documented: We cited who, when, and where a senior researcher was called “the prettiest economist I know.”)
In your meeting with management, ask about company practices and policy to see if they correspond to stated policy. Find out if different standards are applied to different groups. For example, ask what recruiting procedures are used. (One director at Brookings replied that he queried his colleagues in academia, “Who’s your bright young man this year?” The gasps from other directors as well as from us led the way to a discussion of the “old boy network” of recruitment.”)
In all these sessions, you should come on not as “injustice collectors” but as management consultants who also are advocates. Point out that it is bad business not to make optimum use of all brainpower available to the company. Emphasizing business efficiency should strike a responsive chord.
Administrators may complain that affirmative action takes too much effort. This is where the steering committee can make itself indispensable. Help your administrators make every “good faith effort” to fulfill their affirmative action responsibilities by locating “nontraditional” sources of recruitment, such as minority directories or the women’s caucuses of professional associations. Search the professional literature for names of women and minorities as possible new hires or as possible appointments to your company’s policy-making board. In other words, make it impossible for management to say it could not find qualified women and minorities to fill vacant slots.
Don’t confuse movement with action. Management may make a flurry of apparently significant but actually empty gestures. For example, they may accept your offer to review the AAP. But do not be boondoggled into editing the plan when actually it may need to be rewritten. Then, rewrite it. Make periodic evaluations of your progress and keep all members of your caucus informed.
A word about style
They style in which you pursue your objectives has everything to do with eventually achieving them. The presence of a caucus will be perceived by some as a threat; lines will be drawn and sides taken. In order to keep the middle ground open for continuing exchanges, be cooperative with management, rather than combative. Again, make it known that you have the best interests of the company at heart.
Avoid becoming doctrinaire in both attitude and vocabulary; otherwise you’ll become boring and predictable when you need to be subtle and imaginative. Attack problems, not people. Keep a sense of humor. Be flexible and open-minded, particularly regarding the achievement of affirmative action goals. Think of goals as targets, not inflexible quotas. Keep in mind Talleyrand’s advice: “Above all, not too much zeal.”
What if no movement at all, much less action, can be discerned among management? It’s advisable to contain your activities with the company as long as possible. However, if management becomes obstructive or takes some sort of retaliatory action against you, you can consider going outside the company by filing a complaint with the EEOC; planting a revealing story in a newspaper; filing a minority report with the compliance officer within the federal government who monitors your company’s AAP; or by petitioning for union affiliation.
Above all, persevere. You may have to work a very long time for modest change, but if you believe that yours is a worthy cause, you will find the resourcefulness and courage necessary for success.
A word about the Brookings case
These broadly prescriptive guidelines are based in large part on the writer’s three-year involvement in organizing and helping lead the women’s caucus at the Brookings Institution, a private nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C. Its size, fairly evenly divided between research and support staff, never exceeded 300 during the life of the caucus (spring 1973 to late fall 1975).
From the outset the “women’s caucus” was determined to represent at Brookings the interests of minority groups as well. After a summer of organizational meetings, the purpose of the caucus materialized: to put teeth into the institution’s AAP, the existence of which was unknown to over 90% of the respondents to a questionnaire circulated at one of our meetings. We scrutinized the AAP’s undocumented claims in a line-by-line critique. This critique, along with lists of suggestions from researchers and support staff for better treatment, was submitted to our affirmative action officer, the director of administration, who later, at our invitation, appeared before the caucus to respond to the critique and lists. Further meetings between him and an ad hoc committee from the caucus convinced us that the AAP was our best bet to change things at this establishment typically characterized in the media as “liberal” and “prestigious.”
Our purpose and program clarified, the caucus elected a ten-member steering committee, which in turn elected a senior researcher as its chair. Two ad hoc committees—one to study the institution’s AAP, the other to study the possibility of establishing a staff relations committee—were formed among the steering committee members. In assisting the administration in the annual revision of the AAP, the former committee followed all the steps an employer must take in developing an AAP (complete with a detailed proposal on goals and timetables), and a compromise was reached between the administration’s version and ours. The latter committee surveyed grievance procedures and staff relations committees at other similarly-situated organizations and discussed its findings with Brookings’ president.
Many meetings and memos later, the objectives of the two committees were officially institutionalized. The work of the affirmative action committee is carried on by the staff members (including both males and females) appointed by their program directors to assist in recruiting new staff and approving or vetoing the proposed hire. A new key responsibility of these staffers is to expand the recruitment pool, beyond merely asking one’s white male friend in academe, “Who’s your bright young man this year?”
The work of the other committee is carried on by an officially recognized staff relations committee consisting of male and female members elected by their program’s staff. This committee’s program, still developing, includes hearing staff grievances and advising the administration on action to be taken, and investigating fringe benefits, sick leave, and other institutional policies.
Finally, two more women (one a member of a minority group) were appointed to join the lone woman serving on the board of trustees, the policy-making body for Brookings.
In a move exceptional for organized bodies, the steering committee then terminated itself, the caucus, and all activities except its speakers series (which the writer conceived and led). While dispersing, however, we made known our agreement that if conditions regressed, or if the current improved representation of women and minorities especially on the research staff were to slip back to tokenism, the caucus would rise again.
Some basic materials
Commerce Clearing House, Inc., Guidebook to Fair Employment Practices. (Chicago, IL 60646). $2.50.
Davis, Susan, “Organizing from Within,” Ms. Magazine (August 1972). Reprinted in The First Ms. Reader, ed. Francine Klagsbrun (New York: Warner Paperback Library, 1973). $1.50. Cites companies having women’s caucuses which could be contacted for their experiences. Bibliography includes reference to Midwest Academy, which specializes in training women to organize working women. Contact Ms. Heather Booth, 600 W. Fullerton Ave., Chicago, IL 60614.
Maddox, Jean, and Pamela Allen, Organize! A Working Women’s Handbook. Union Wage Education Committee, 1975.
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Office of Voluntary Programs, Education Programs Division, Affirmative Action and Equal Employment: A Guidebook for Employers. Free from the EEOC (1800 G St., N.W., Wash., D.C. 20506).
Request a free copy of Revised Order No. 4 from the Office of Federal Contract Compliance, U.S. Department of Labor (Wash., D.C. 20210).
Women’s Work was published by Wider Opportunities for Women, Washington, D.C.