As the only woman on a 10-person sales team at Dell Inc., Marsha Cipollone said she was pushed down and pushed out while less-experienced men were handed the plum accounts.
Cipollone said she was denied the training and support her male colleagues received and was set up to fail. She was fired in 2017 and sued, alleging discrimination, according to court records. She said she settled with the company in 2018.
That same year, the U.S. Labor Department’s anti-discrimination office also documented systemic inequality at the company, finding that women and Black employees earned less than men and White workers in similar positions.
“Dell has very much typically been a White guy company,” Cipollone said.
But exactly how diverse Dell is – how many women and people of color it employs at all levels of the organization and how that stacks up against other companies – remains obscured.
When the federal government released a historic data set last month detailing employee diversity at more than 19,000 of its contractors, Dell was one of more than 4,000 companies missing because they objected to the release. And the Labor Department’s anti-discrimination office – the same one that found inequality at Dell – has so far allowed the objectors to keep their diversity data secret.
USA TODAY and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting compared the new diversity data with federal contractors receiving at least a billion dollars in contracts in 2020, according to federal spending records. A majority of those companies were left out of the data release, indicating they objected, despite accounting for more than $180 billion in federal spending in 2020. That includes at least a dozen companies – collectively reaping more than $100 billion – that paid to settle Labor Department findings of job discrimination over the last decade.
Companies that receive taxpayer-funded contracts are supposed to be held to a higher standard, and they’re subject to audits by the Labor Department office charged with making sure contractors provide equal employment opportunities.
Dell agreed to pay nearly $10 million in back wages after repeated government findings of discrimination. The company called itself a “leader in pay equity and inclusion” and retained its status as a major federal contractor, with at least $2 billion in federal contracts to Dell or its subsidiaries in 2020 alone.
Dell didn’t respond directly to questions about why it objected to releasing its diversity numbers. The company pointed instead to its own curated diversity report, which says its “people leaders” are 72% male and 71% White and doesn’t include the standardized data that would allow it to be compared to similar companies, such as Apple, HP, IBM or Intel, which didn’t object. “We believe in fair treatment in the workplace, regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation or religion,” the company said in an emailed statement.
Secret Reports Stymie Comparison Across Industries
Unlike subjective reports that can be manipulated to present a rosier picture of diversity, the data that federal contractors are required to submit to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission shows the actual numbers of employees broken down by race and gender, for broad job categories like executives, professionals and service workers. The numbers allow for standardized comparison. They also show, for example, how many women of color are employed at different levels of a company, which many companies leave out of their customized reports.
Until recently, most companies didn’t share standardized numbers with the public. Some companies say the job categories on the reports are too broad or misleading, and their annual diversity reports better reflect their workforce. Others are reluctant to be cast in a negative light or invite litigation.
In 2019, when Reveal sued the government for diversity data submitted by a group of tech companies, some argued they’d be vulnerable to rivals learning sensitive information or luring away their diverse talent. A federal judge disagreed, ruling that the diversity reports known as EEO-1s are not confidential business information. The Labor Department released those tech company records but has chosen not to apply that ruling to requests for more data. Several of those companies, including fitness company Fitbit and software company DocuSign, no longer object to the data’s release. Others, such as PayPal, initially fought the data release but now share the annual reports publicly.
Last month, in response to more requests and a lawsuit from Reveal, the department released five years of diversity data from companies that didn’t object. An analysis of the data by USA TODAY found that federal contractors are failing to live up to the promise of equal opportunity, with White men dominating their executive ranks. Companies that did not fight public disclosure include defense contractors Raytheon and Boeing, which ranked among the highest recipients of federal contract dollars in 2020, as well as familiar names like Moderna, Pfizer, A&E Television Network and Sherwin-Williams.
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Source: U.S. Department of Labor
Labor Department spokesperson Edwin Nieves said the agency hasn’t allowed any companies to opt out of providing their EEO-1 numbers. Instead, Nieves said the department is required to give all contractors a chance to object and is withholding their data while evaluating those objections. Reveal is still pushing in court for the release of all contractors’ data.
While the government gave contractors repeated opportunities to object over several months, lawyers warned companies to object or face the potentially brand-damaging consequences of transparency.
Lawyers advising contractors on meeting government anti-discrimination requirements are often focused on minimum compliance, not transforming company culture, said Mary-Frances Winters, CEO of The Winters Group, which provides diversity consulting to companies.
And company lawyers often don’t want to reveal anything that could put the company at risk. That can pit the diversity team against the legal team, Winters said.
“We fight with lawyers all the time,” Winters said. “The DEI office is saying, ‘Let’s be transparent,’ because for them, it’s about, where are the opportunities to be better? The legal people, while they’re not necessarily against that, they’re saying, ‘Let’s not share our weaknesses.’ ”
After Discrimination, Promises About Equity and Inclusion, But No Data
As they gobble government money, big federal contractors are at different points on their diversity and transparency journey. Some, such as engineering and construction company Bechtel and health care company McKesson, didn’t respond to any questions. Government services contractor Amentum said it would disclose EEO-1 data at some point: “Target date is unknown,” a spokesperson said. And the pharmaceutical company Merck objected because the company considers those numbers confidential and not representative of the firm’s diversity efforts, said spokesperson Bob Josephson. But when asked about its objection, the company provided Reveal all five years of data anyway.
Lockheed Martin’s data would have shown how many people of color the company employed at different levels back in 2017 and 2018, when the Labor Department’s anti-discrimination office found the defense contractor had discriminated against Asian, Black and Latino or Hispanic job seekers. But Lockheed objected to the Labor Department’s release.
In 2020, Lockheed denied wrongdoing and expressed its commitment to diversity, but agreed to pay $700,000 and hire 34 of the rejected applicants.
In an emailed statement, the company noted that it posted its 2021 EEO-1 report online and that “our commitment to diversity and inclusion is a business imperative, helping to drive our innovation and global leadership.” Lockheed was awarded more than $51 billion in federal contracts in 2020, the biggest dollar figure to any single company.
A Lockheed spokesperson didn’t explain why the company objected.
Washington D.C.- based consulting firm called Chemonics International blocked releasing its own diversity data because it considers that confidential commercial information, said Chemonics spokesperson Martha James.
“Furthermore, we don’t frame our diversity, equity and inclusion strategy or measure our progress through the lens of EEO-1 data, which lacks the additional variables and context that allow us to fully analyze our workforce data,” James said in an email.
The company launched a diversity effort in 2017 after a Labor Department audit flagged a time when the firm rejected every single one of 124 Black applicants for entry-level professional jobs. Chemonics agreed to pay $482,000 to the rejected job seekers and to hire eight of them. James said the company has been in compliance with anti-discrimination regulations ever since.
Chemonics claims some progress: Its first diversity report says its ranks of people of color increased from 36% in 2017 to 40% in 2021, without a detailed breakdown. How many Black people does Chemonics employ and at what level in the company? The proof would be in EEO-1 numbers Chemonics wouldn’t disclose.
Cipollone, the former Dell employee who sued for discrimination, said she didn’t see a lot of diversity there, so she’s not surprised Dell objected to releasing its numbers. But she thinks all companies should come clean and face the consequences.
“It’s not 2000 anymore. It’s 2023,” she said. “You’re just going to have to take the hit for it and you’re going to have to get on board with everybody else.”
This article was produced in collaboration with USA TODAY. Jessica Guynn contributed reporting.
This story was edited by Kate Howard and Doug Caruso and copy edited by Nikki Frick.
Will Evans can be reached at email@example.com, Jayme Fraser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and Jessica Guynn at email@example.com. Follow Evans and Fraser on Twitter: @willCIR and @JaymeKFraser.