"This is a law enforcement agency and we're here to enforce the law," said Cari Dominquez, who heads the government agency charged with shattering the "glass ceiling," the invisible barrier civil rights advocates claim has kept women and minorities out of top management jobs in the nation's largest corporations.
As director of the Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), Dominquez is charged with enforcing equal employment opportunity laws for government contractors -- a group that includes every company on the Fortune 500 list of the nation's largest corporations.
Any company with a federal contract of $50,000 or more falls under OFCCP jurisdiction.
The Labor Department recently sent investigators to boardrooms and executive suites of eight major corporations to examine the hiring and promotion practices that have kept top management jobs overwhelmingly in the hands of white males a quarter of a century after Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act guaranteeing equal employment opportunities for women and minorities.
Preliminary results from a new study by Korn Ferry, a leading executive recruiting firm, show that less than 5 percent of the top executive jobs are held by women or minorities. The study, which was conducted with the graduate school of management at the University of California at Los Angeles, shows almost no change in the number of women and minorities in top management from an identical study in 1979.
"Women and minorities get to certain levels and something happens. They don't appear to have the same opportunities," Dominquez said. The new government effort, she said, will be to determine "how people get to the top" in corporate America.
Dominquez, 41, whose family fled Cuba in 1961 when she was 12, called the new civil rights effort a "natural progression" in the evolution of women in the workplace. She said the Labor Department is trying to come up with a methodology for training the agency's 585 compliance officers to detect bias in the promotion of women and minorities to top management jobs. She was emphatic in noting that the glass ceiling is not just a barrier for women, but for minorities as well.
"My charge is to look for ways to remove barriers," she said.
The glass ceiling project has already put Dominquez and the Labor Department on the defensive against charges that the government is about to set hiring quotas for the executive suite. Dominquez denied the initiative involves quotas and said it will not be driven by numbers.
Critics have also argued that the Labor Department is pursuing policies that are contrary to the civil rights stance of the White House, notably the Bush administration's opposition to the civil rights legislation before Congress. Dominquez said President Bush opposes the pending legislation because he believes it would create quotas, but he is supportive of equal opportunity laws. "I believe he's very committed to equity and fairness in the workplace," she said.
"We're not saying we're going to change the selection process," Dominquez said. But, she added, "when you look at the demographics and advancement, affirmative action is now more of a management issue."
The major thrust of the new initiative will be to assure that women and minorities receive the same training and other career advancement opportunities as those who are chosen for top management positions.
The glass ceiling is not the only new target for Dominquez. Late in October the department is expected to announce another enforcement initiative to help break down the barriers to women in non-traditional jobs such as construction.
The hiring record for women in the construction industry is "dismal," Dominquez said, especially among the skilled trades.
To open doors for women, Dominquez said the department is looking at several programs in an effort to devise a plan for federal contractors to follow before construction begins. She said her office would set the rules with the prime contractor on a project, who would then be held responsible for seeing that other contractors and unions complied.
Dominquez brings considerable government and corporate experience to her role as field commander of the new enforcement effort. Before joining the administration as OFCCP director, Dominquez served as vice president and director of executive programs for Bank of America at its San Francisco headquarters. In that post she was in charge of equal employment policies during a time when the bank was forced to trim 20,000 employees from its payroll.
Before she joined Bank of America, she was a career civil servant with nine years experience at the OFCCP and became special assistant to the director.
Unlike many Cubans who fled Castro in the early 1960s, Dominquez did not go to Miami. In 1961, she said, her father sent her, her mother and her sister to Montgomery County to live with an aunt. The father and the rest of her family joined them a year later.
Dominquez, a Hispanic, attended private school her first year in the United States in order to learn English. After graduating from public high school, she attended a local community college and then completed her college degree at American University.
"I was recruited into the federal government out of college," Dominquez said. After stints at the Internal Revenue Service, she went to work for the Veterans Administration, where she helped set up the agency's first contract compliance program. Two years later, in 1974, she joined the OFCCP.
When Labor Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole began searching for a new OFCCP director, Cari Dominquez's name kept popping up. To assure that Dominquez, who has a 2-year-old son, would take the job, Dole also offered a position to Dominquez's husband, Alberto, in the department's civil rights section.
"Mrs. Dole made us a package deal," Dominquez said.