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News from EPI To confront racial and gender discrimination at the workplace, we must consider power imbalances and bolster enforcement

To confront racial and gender discrimination at the workplace, we must consider power imbalances and bolster enforcement

Two new reports released as a part of EPI’s Unequal Power project look at ways to challenge racial and gender disparities and discrimination in employment.

The first report, “Gender inequality and bargaining in the U.S. labor market,” explains that gender and racial disparities cannot be understood nor seriously challenged without taking into account and confronting the reality of unequal bargaining power. Neoclassical economics often takes the form of statistical models that control for as many variables as possible but ignore any measures of bargaining power other than unionization. This paper challenges this approach, showing how the institutional landscape disempowers workers, women, and people of color, reinforcing overlapping inequalities.

“Attention to the history of patriarchal, racist, and capitalist institutions—as well as efforts to mitigate or modify them—is crucial to an understanding of a persistent gender pay gap,” says report author Nancy Folbre, Director of the Program on Gender and Care Work at the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst. “By derailing this power imbalance, we can more effectively challenge unfair inequalities.”

Folbre discusses various solutions for rebalancing bargaining power between employers and employees, such as building alliances between feminist and racial justice activists to bolster an agenda of equity for all and placing a higher value on “care work,” whether paid or unpaid.

The second report, “Strengthening accountability for discrimination,” finds that our current anti-discrimination laws place primary responsibility for enforcement on individual workers, who must file complaints with their employer or a government agency. The problem is compounded by the dramatic asymmetries of information and resources between employers and employees, which often create insurmountable hurdles for workers to defend their rights. This power imbalance has enabled employers to write contractual rules, including forced arbitration clauses and nondisclosure agreements that strip away employee rights and undermine effective enforcement.

“In order to confront racial and gender discrimination in the workplace, we must rebalance the extraordinary power disparities that have contributed to the under-enforcement of our civil rights laws and reforming decades of legal doctrines and employer practices that minimize employer liability,” said report coauthor and former Chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Jenny R. Yang. “We can rebuild our enforcement systems to empower workers to stand up and confront civil rights violations in their workplaces.”

The authors recommend strengthening legal protections for workers and providing meaningful opportunities to enforce their rights and obtain remedies for harm. Employers should have enforcement structures to create accountability mechanisms and incentives to identify and address the root causes of discrimination within their workplaces—and to prevent discrimination before it harms workers. To do this, laws should require greater transparency of employment decisions such as hiring and pay setting, as well as disclosures on the demographics of each workplace to promote public awareness and create momentum to evaluate and eliminate bias from current employment processes.

“To root out problems while protecting workers, enforcement agencies can strengthen relationships with worker organizations and employer associations to help identify patterns of discrimination and barriers to compliance,” said report coauthor and independent researcher Jane Liu. “Additionally, our courts need to interpret anti-discrimination laws with a much deeper understanding of the practical realities of the power and information imbalances in the employment relationship to provide workers with a meaningful private right of action.”

These papers will be discussed at on a digital panel on March 11 at 4 p.m. Eastern. Register here.