WASHINGTON -- Labor Secretary Lynn Martin vowed yesterday to shatter the "glass ceiling" in corporate America that prevents women and other minorities from reaching jobs above mid-management level.
Martin said a Labor Department study of nine large corporations gave "clear signs" that artificial barriers to the promotion of women and minorities exist at even low levels and are largely ignored by employers.
She pledged to use her office to urge businesses to develop ways to remove promotion obstacles. She also noted that the Labor Department has the power to deny federal contracts for non-compliance.
"Right now, America cannot afford to deny opportunity and ignore merit," Martin said at a news conference. "We must do everything in our power to ensure that each and every individual counts."
Martin emphasized that her plan does not endorse employment quotas, a practice that President Bush has pointedly criticized during the ongoing debate with Democrats over a civil rights bill.
"This is the mere reverse of quotas," she said. "This says if an individual has ability and talent, how can we make sure those abilities and talents are used to their fullest potential?"
Women's groups offered a mixed reaction to the report. Spokeswomen applauded the official attention to the problem but questioned whether the Labor Department would adequately use its enforcement powers.
"If there is no enforcement effort coupled with this report, business will soon forget, and there won't be any real prod to make sure they change their practices and procedures," said Marcia Greenberger, managing attorney of the National Women's Law Center.
Martin also denied a reporter's suggestion that the White House delayed the report's release or attempted to alter its text. "Not one word was changed," she said.
The report comes almost two years after Martin's predecessor, Elizabeth Dole, announced that the Labor Department was launching a "glass ceiling initiative" to study why women and minorities do not reach executive jobs.
Martin, a former Illinois congresswoman, succeeded Dole in February. She is the only woman in charge of a Cabinet-level agency.
Several recent studies have shown that despite huge increases in the numbers of women and minorities entering the work force, the percentage of those at top executive levels remains near the 3 to 5 percent level of a decade ago.
The Labor Department report named training and recruitment as two problem areas but stopped short of accusing businesses of intentional sex or race discrimination. Martin shied away from even using those terms.
"It shows there are barriers," she said of the report. "You can put whatever word on that."
Martin also declined to identify the nine companies other than to say they were members of the Fortune 500 list, varied widely in type of enterprise and were located in five of the 10 Labor Department regions.
Greenberger said the glass ceiling is caused by discrimination and said the Bush administration should support the Democratic-backed Civil Rights Act of 1991 if it is sincere about eliminating employment bias.
The Democratic civil rights bill, which has passed the House and is pending in the Senate, would allow women to recover punitive damages for acts of intentional discrimination. Bush has vowed to veto the bill, which he insists would compel businesses to use hiring and promotion quotas.
Harriett Woods, president of the National Women's Political Caucus, suggested that the Bush administration should improve its record of promoting women to high executive posts before turning its attention to private business.