by Rebecca Kolberg

If the new Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO) has her way, every intramural research laboratory will have a copy of NIH's new Affirmative Action Plan sitting next to the ubiquitous stacks of methods manuals, lab notebooks, and journal reprints.

"Information is knowledge. The old process really kept affirmative action in the Equal Employment Opportunity [EEO] offices, and if you wanted information, you practically had to pry it out. We want this document to be a living one that is broadly distributed," says Naomi Churchill, who became Director of OEO last September. Churchill says she also wants to make the new plan more user-friendly and thus has tried to strip away much of the legal jargon used in earlier affirmative action plans in favor of "bare-bones" language understandable to all NIH employees. "The traditional affirmative action planning process has been, frankly, pretty complicated. It was driven by lawyers at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC]," says Churchill, who in the 1980s worked as a staff attorney for EEOC.

After the final version of the plan comes out this spring, Churchill urges rank-and-file researchers to contact her if they find provisions that are unworkable or difficult to implement. "I need to know whether or not the policies we frame are going to play in the lab," she says. "At the point where the rubber meets the road, does it make sense?"

Placing details of the Affirmative Action Plan in the hands of more scientists may help dispel what Churchill finds to be the most offensive misperception about affirmative action initiatives: that nonwhites and women are hired or promoted for jobs that they are not qualified to hold. In the past, NIH affirmative action plans based their hiring and promotion goals on data showing the representation of women and minorities in the Civilian Labor Force's extremely general occupational categories, which lumped together workers with such disparate job titles as nuclear physicist and school teacher. The new strategy allows each institution, center, or division (ICD) to base its goals for hiring women and minorities on their representation in the pool of workers who are actually available to perform each type of job. A key part of determining the available labor force for a given scientific opening involves selecting the most appropriate occupational databases, such as those from the National Science Foundation and the National Research Council that track the race and ethnicity of people receiving doctorates in a variety of scientific fields. Examples of how the choice of a database can influence the degree of "underrepresentation" seen at NIH for various minority groups are shown on page 17.

"We think this plan will help make some decisions a lot easier," Churchill says. "In a downsizing environment, everybody wonders how do you balance diversity . . . When should diversity be the element that tips the scale one way or the other? And we really think a lot of those questions will be answered if scientists, managers, supervisors, and scientific directors do their homework and use the Affirmative Action Plan in an appropriate manner."

Recruiting is one area in which researchers may be most likely to notice the impact of the new Affirmative Action Plan, Churchill says. The OEO Director says that in the past, NIH has sometimes approached minority hiring in a "less than methodical" manner, simply assuming that the addition of a woman or nonwhite would add diversity without assessing the level of diversity that already exists.

"With this plan, in some cases, there will be no need for affirmative action -- at least not for some groups. So it's going to force a manager to think a little more. For example, if you have an adequate representation of white women, or of Asian scientists, or of black women in administrative (positions), how do you reach the Hispanic population?" she says. "We can't really go with a cookie-cutter strategy -- that one approach works for all."

Churchill says she thinks that, for blacks and women, the biggest issue confronting NIH may not be how to bring more of those groups into the scientific work force, but how to move them up the career ladder. In addition, she says, NIH has a problem retaining some women scientists. Because the amount of effort currently devoted to such issues varies widely among the ICDs, OEO is working with the Office of Human Resources Management to explore the possibility of developing centralized services for career development, mentoring, retention, and recruitment at NIH. In particular, Churchill says the lack of across-the-board exchange of information is a major handicap in the recruitment of researchers. Currently, there is no formal mechanism for ICDs to exchange information on job candidates, nor is there any way to provide candidates with an NIH-wide list of jobs that match their scientific qualifications.

However, the most critical factor holding NIH back in terms of the diversity of its scientific work force, according to Churchill, is the serious shortage of certain racial and ethnic groups in the educational pipeline. For example, based on national data from the 1990 Census, blacks account for only 3.6 percent of physicians and Hispanics represent only 3.2 percent of biological and life scientists. Churchill acknowledges that NIH, like the rest of government, is at an economic disadvantage compared with the private sector when it comes to attracting outstanding minority scientists. But she adds, "I believe there is no place on the planet that can make you feel as good about biomedical research as NIH. It would seem to me that the majority of the people on the medical side of the house are not here because they are planning to make a lot of money. They are here because they absolutely love it. Those are the things we have to play to when we are recruiting."

Churchill, who previously directed equal employment opportunity efforts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, says she has found NIH to be no better or worse than other federal agencies when it comes to equal employment opportunity issues. However, she does think that NIH collectively has tended to be rather hard on itself about its shortcomings in the diversity area.

"I would hope that everybody in the lab and in the offices would be able to relax a little bit. It's my feeling that NIH has been functioning in a heightened sense of awareness and sensitivity to race and gender issues for the past two years or so," Churchill says. "This plan is not a `gotcha activity.' I don't envision that anyone is going to be immediately fired because the goals that are set are not reached. So the labs, as well as every other corner of the NIH community, should be able to become a lot more contemplative about how we are going to reach and maintain diversity." The OEO Director adds that she plans to visit the intramural campuses in Research Triangle Park, N.C., and Baltimore later this year to answer questions and to see whether there are any aspects of the new Affirmative Action Plan that need to be tailored to their regional needs.

Although OEO is probably best known among NIH employees for handling approximately 200 complaints of racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and other bias issues each year, Churchill wants scientists to know that her office does far more than mediate and adjudicate specific cases. OEO actually spends about two-thirds of its time on its general advisory and monitoring responsibilities. The OEO Director's five-year strategy for NIH, entitled "A Framework for Change," includes developing an initiative called "Managing Diversity" next year to address conflicts that do not fall into traditional race or gender categories, such as complaints from nonsmokers that smokers spend too much time away from their work areas or misunderstandings among people who speak with different accents. The plan also calls for establishment of an alternate dispute-resolution mechanism for handling discrimination and sexual harassment complaints and for tying affirmative action, diversity, and dispute resolution to "total quality management" and other means of reducing conflicts between workers and their supervisors.

Churchill says her personal framework for viewing equal opportunity issues is flexible. "My only philosophy is one of inclusion -- and that includes white males," she says. Over the years, "questions of discrimination have moved from being very overt to being very covert. I think, as an equal opportunity professional, I have to be prepared to change."

OEO Caption
Baseline Data Comparisons: General Biological Scientists
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