Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Digital Equipment Corporation - Diversity

Digital’s core commitment to growing beyond being a white, male dominated technology company moved into higher gear with the hiring of John Sims as Manager of Affirmative Action and Equal Employment Opportunity in 1974. He rose to become Vice President of Corporate Personnel in 1984. Early on, the “Efficacy” program was available to help hundreds of employees to deal with uncertainty, take responsibility for their careers, and manager their own career development. In addition, in a 1986 interview for US Black Engineer, Sims explained, “Very early on we recognized that there were not enough minorities and women flowing into technical careers.” The company started programs in scores of high schools and junior colleges with equipment gifts and funding. The company also deliberately located manufacturing plants in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, and trained staff there to qualify for promotion to management.

This quote from Deborah Pace, who had been an employee at the Springfield facility, from a collection of quotations and tributes compiled by Gordon College in 2006: “I want to thank Mr. Olsen and his family for providing people in the black community with excellent job opportunities, corporate training & other great skills that were ahead of so many other Fortune 500 companies. Because of Mr. Olsen, his brother, and their passion to bring Digital Equipment Corporation into the world; a vision that help others to dream and realize their potential, I was able to work, purchase my first home, take care of my two daughters, finish my college education and gain skills that I will utilize the remainder of my life. DEC will always be a part of my life and memory. I would love to work for him again. I salute the leader, hero and great visionary man today and always.”

Women at work at Digital Equipment Corporation,
Maynard, MA. Second floor, Building 12.
Barbara Walker, an African-American lawyer with years of experience s Director, Office of Civil Rights, in the federal government, joined DEC in 1979. She started “Core Groups,” as monthly meetings at the senior management level, later expanded downward across the company, with the premise that “Affirmative action is for everyone.”  Walker’s training program began with self-assessment of one’s own stereotypes. Workshop participants were expected to build relationships with people they felt were different from them. People were expected to talk about how they felt victimized by those perceptions. These groups of 7-9 people met on company time several hours per month to discuss the different expectations of people who were racial minorities, were women, were people from different countries, of different religious beliefs, or were people with other than heterosexual orientation. Even within the confine of white male employees, the company came to realize that people in Engineering, Manufacturing and Marketing misunderstood the motivations and expectations of people outside their department.  

Women at work at American Woolen Company, 1904.
Possibly same room (ceiling higher?). Click on photos to
enlarge. Courtesy Maynard Historical Society.
The “Valuing Differences” program, which evolved from the core groups in the early 1980s, called for employees to acknowledge differences among their co-workers rather than pretending they did not exist. One of the tools was a mock questionnaire that inverted questions so frequently asked of homosexuals, to wit: “Is it possible that heterosexuality is just a phase you may grow out of?” A New York Times article from 1991 mentioned that the U.S. Labor Department had praised only three large companies for a commitment to affirmative action: Pacific Gas and Electric, IBM and DEC.

Digital was ahead of its time with this work. The company had a zero tolerance, non-discrimination policy toward gays, and provided for internal gay support groups. This was in addition to the diversity/differences Core Groups. Support groups were also encouraged for women. Managers who violated anti-discrimination policies were terminated. Were benefits quantifiable? DEC gained a reputation as a good workplace for minorities and women. The company attracted top talent, and staff turnover was below national norms. All employees felt empowered to identify problems and propose solutions. This fit well with a DEC mantra: “He who proposes, does,” meaning that a person identifying a problem was often charged with putting together a team to fix it. Clearly, it came to encompass “She who proposes, does.”


  1. Disappointing that there’s no mention of the very early work that Bill Hanson did in Manufacturing with Jackie Awerman ?

  2. I conducted a lot of research for this column, but not having myself been a DEC employee, or knowing who to research, I was limited to what I found via searches.