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VA's lack of diversity in management called out in hearing

U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs faces criticism over its lack of diversity in senior management, where white workers are more likely to gain management roles than Black workers.

The U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs faced criticism at a House committee hearing Thursday for its lack of diversity in senior management. The committee also heard arguments that the VA needs to be more like private sector firms and adopt substantial diversity, equity and inclusion practices.

The hearing was called to examine diversity at the VA. U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas (D-NH), who chairs the Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, framed the VA's problem. At first glance, the department appears diverse, with more than 400,000 employees and contractors, of which nearly 43% are part of the racial minority and 61% are female, he said.

But according to VA data, most people of color and women "are significantly under-represented in the VA's most senior job roles," Pappas said at the hearing. Black women comprise almost 17% of the VA workforce, but hold less than 6% of the most senior career positions. White men make up 23% of the VA workforce, but hold nearly half of the most senior career positions, he said.

There are other problems at the VA, Pappas said. More than 2,800 complaints were filed last year by employees who experienced discrimination based on race, religion, sex and other factors.

"I want to unequivocally state that there's no place for discrimination or racism at the VA," Pappas said.

Lack of diversity hurts innovation

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), a labor union, uncovered the VA's problematic hiring and promotions practices through Freedom of Information Act requests.

"Non-white applicants have a much more difficult time getting hired and promoted by the VA than their white counterparts," said Sheila Elliott, president of AFGE Local 2328. She testified at the hearing and was critical of the VA's lack of diversity in management.

Out of the large pool of workers applying for VA management jobs, Black workers faced lower selection chances than white workers. In 2019 and 2020, the selection rate for African Americans seeking management posts was 2.5% for both years. For white workers, the selection rate was 4.7% and 4.4%, respectively.

Rick Wade, a senior vice president of strategic alliances and outreach at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, testified that businesses that embrace diversity benefit from doing so. Diverse perspectives "bring different ideas and viewpoints to the table," he said.

Businesses that embrace diversity and inclusion perform better across multiple financial metrics.
Rick WadeSenior vice president of strategic alliances and outreach, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

"Businesses that embrace diversity and inclusion perform better across multiple financial metrics," Wade said.

Wade cited work by McKinsey & Co., which found, among other things, that companies "in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability." Firms in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity were 36% more profitable than fourth quartile firms.

The hearing was held one month after the VA created a task force to examine inclusion, equity and diversity at the organization. Its report is due July 31.

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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