Between the 1970s and today, the term "affirmative action" fell out of favor, and in its place, "diversity" emerged.
Affirmative action, grounded in law and the moral obligation to right historic wrongs, was aimed at women and racial minorities. Over the years, it became tainted by controversy over reverse discrimination and quota-mongering.
Diversity, on the other hand, was perceived to be not about preferences, but "fairness and inclusion." It embraced every group in the workforce: minorities, women, older workers, disabled workers, gays, lesbians — and white males.
Diversity largely was not seen as a burden, but rather as an opportunity. Companies began to see how a diverse workforce could help them venture into new markets.
Recent decades have brought a positive shift in thinking, but challenges still exist, UCLA and Columbia University legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw tells Morning Edition guest host Deborah Amos.
"The real question is: How open is the pipeline? And does it go all the way up to the top?" she says. "Many companies that have good reputations for having great diversity programs still have difficulty in mentoring and creating opportunities so those folks who are at the middle actually make it all the way up to the penthouse."
Today, many American companies will say diversity is a central value, but is that much more than lip service? A company can celebrate Mother's Day, Crenshaw says, but on closer inspection, do they have family leave policies or offer flex time?
"You can have a cosmetic policy, but not have a structural one," she says.