The History of Diversity in the Workplace

by Rob Wagner ; Updated September 26, 2017
Hands united together

Diversity in the workplace in the United States was virtually non-existent for the first 150 years after the country's founding. World War I, the 1920s Jazz Age and a stronger voice among minority workers slowly changed the workplace from a white male domain to better reflect a multicultural society. Still, the passage of federal laws and the formation of activists groups have not guaranteed racial and gender equality in the workplace.

Workplace Diversity Defined

Diverse group of men

A true diverse workplace generally includes a proportionate number of ethnic minorities and male and female workforce that reflect the racial and religious makeup of society and the local community. In recent decades, a diverse workforce also includes people with disabilities, including AIDS and cancer sufferers, according to Diversity Inc magazine's website.

Pre-1930 Workplace

Construction worker holding industrial power tool

The modern workplace from the late 18th century to about 1930 was typically a man's world with few exceptions. In 1870, female clerks accounted for 2.5 percent of the workforce, rising to 53 percent in 1930. Female clerk typists rose from 5 to 96 percent during the same period. Minorities, typically African-Americans, were segregated to work in the service industry, such as servants, porters and manual labor, according to earlyofficemuseum.com.

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Wartime Employment

Finger choosing hospital symbol from menu

Women gained a foothold in the American workplace when men went to war in 1917. They also gained valuable training through Red Cross work. When World War I ended, women returned home but they possessed new skills. The 1920s flapper era and the depiction of strong women in movies opened possibilities for women, according to infoplease.com.

Between the Wars

Smiling Businesswoman

The Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor was formed in 1920 to safeguard women in the workplace. The National Council of Negro Women was founded in 1935 to lobby Congress against racism, sexism and job discrimination, according to infoplease.com.

Rosie the Riveter

National World War II Reunion Brings Together Veterans

Women returned to the workplace in great numbers during World War II to fill the void by departing servicemen. They worked in aircraft factories, the management level in industry and flew aircraft as test pilots. Most women lost their jobs to returning GIs, but the workplace was forever changed as women demanded jobs in corporate America, according to infoplease.com.

New Legislation

US postage stamp: John F. Kennedy

President Harry Truman integrated the U.S. military in 1948, sparking mass change in the workplace, according to redstone.army.mil. President John Kennedy in 1961 established the Commission on the Status of women to improve hiring practices and maternity leave. The Equal Pay Act followed in 1963, making it illegal to pay a woman less than a man. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson.


two businessmen and two businesswomen discussing in an office

Many companies today fail to follow the spirit of past legislation and pay women and minorities less money than their colleagues, according to womensmedia.com. Affirmative-action legislation, designed to level the employment playing field for whites and minorities, has been attacked as unfair to whites. However, the basic tenants of affirmative action were upheld in 2003 by the U.S. Supreme Court in a University of Michigan case in which the justices ruled there is a "compelling" reason to maintain diversity in society, according to diversityworking.com.

About the Author

Rob Wagner is a journalist with over 35 years experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines. His experience ranges from legal affairs reporting to covering the Middle East. He served stints as a newspaper and magazine editor in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Wagner attended California State University, Los Angeles, and has a degree in journalism.

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