Confronting Employer Power to Address Race and Gender Discrimination and Disparities

Date: March 11, 2021

Why haven’t we made greater progress when it comes to obliterating gender and racial inequities? It’s time to dig deeper, beyond blatant bias, into the power dynamic that has generated and perpetuated an inequitable system.

Gender and racial disparities cannot be understood nor seriously challenged without taking into account and confronting the reality of unequal bargaining power between employers and employees.

By derailing this power imbalance, we can more effectively challenge gender and race inequities. The first step, however, is understanding the impact unequal bargaining power has in the workplace and what can be done about it—and, with that knowledge, building alliances between feminist and racial justice activists, among other groups, to bolster an agenda of equity for all.

This event, part of EPI’s Unequal Power initiative, provided that understanding, shining a spotlight on these key issues:

  • How bolstering collaboration among disempowered groups could successfully challenge unfair systems and challenge narrow views of how gender norms impact inequality.
  • How workplaces long controlled by white men and focused on the bottom line above all else have kept women and people of color from getting on equal footing and how this needs to be confronted head on, despite the risks.
  • How putting a higher value on “care work,” whether paid or unpaid, will go a long way toward leveling the playing field for women and people of color.
  • How strengthening legal accountability and enforcement for employer discrimination, and not relying on individual workers—who have little protection from retaliation—to be enforcers, can mitigate the power imbalance.
  • How assumptions about competitive markets and human capital theory fail to explain the persistence of disparate labor market outcomes, especially among workers with the same credentials.
  • How our laws—rather than primarily focusing on proving discrimination after the fact—must create more powerful incentives for employers to adopt practices designed to prevent discrimination, audit systems for bias, and proactively correct problems.

The speakers included the authors of three seminal reports on the topic. Here are some details on the papers, two of which were recently published and a third that is forthcoming.

Understanding Race and Gender Disparities

Nancy Folbre’s Gender Inequality and Bargaining in the U.S. Labor Market: Why Care Work Is Undervalued focuses on how the institutional landscape has created costly tradeoffs that perpetuate inequalities based on gender. Attention to the history of patriarchal and capitalist institutions—as well as efforts to mitigate or modify them—is crucial to an understanding of a persistent gender pay gap. High earnings are not just a reward for years of education and experience. Market dynamics tend to penalize work that generates a high level of social benefit relative to private gain. Many women are employed in jobs in health, education, and social services that, like the work they are expected to perform at home, involve care for others. Specialization in care provision itself lowers bargaining power:

  • It is difficult to threaten to withhold care without violating the commitment to provide it in the first place.
  • It is difficult to measure the quality of a service that is tailored to specific people, rather than standardized.
  • It is difficult to measure individual contributions when teamwork is important.
  • It is difficult to “capture” the economic benefits of improved human capabilities such as health and education.

Indeed, outright discrimination represents only the tip of a larger iceberg that has frozen women into economic disadvantage, assigning them responsibility for tasks whose value is indispensable yet difficult to measure or monetize.

Overcoming workplace unequal power to hold employers accountable for discrimination

Jenny Yang and Jane Liu’s report, Strengthening Accountability for Discrimination: Confronting Fundamental Power Imbalances in the Employment Relationship, identifies the extraordinary challenge of holding employers accountable for discrimination given the uneven power in workplaces. The promise of our nation’s anti-discrimination laws has not been fully realized because our current enforcement and legal system has failed to confront the fundamental power imbalance underpinning the employment relationship.

At the root of the problem is a system that places the primary responsibility for enforcing anti-discrimination laws on individual workers, who must file complaints with their employer or a government agency. Yet the enforcement system does not adequately protect workers from retaliation. The problem is compounded by the dramatic asymmetries of information and resources between employers and employees, asymmetries that 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.

Forthcoming: Competitive markets and human capital theory fail to explain differences in Black–white labor market outcomes

One of the most durable features of the U.S. labor market is the large and persistent disparities in unemployment and wages that exist between Black and white workers. Authors William Darity Jr. and Valerie Wilson find that decades of official labor market statistics, empirical research, and audit studies offer compelling evidence that these disparate outcomes are the result of persistent racial discrimination in the labor market. Yet conventional economic theory posits that competitive markets will eliminate discriminatory outcomes in the long run, and observed differences in labor market outcomes are primarily explained by individual differences in productive capacity. Darity and Wilson present empirical evidence that stands in contradiction to the economic theories most often invoked to explain observed racial differentials in wages and employment—human capital theory, taste-based models of discrimination, and statistical models of discrimination—making a case for stratification economics as a more appropriate framework for understanding the imbalance of power inherent in the social structures that perpetuate racial inequality in labor market outcomes.

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Nancy Folbre, Professor Emerita of Economics and Director, Program on Gender and Care Work, Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts – Amherst
Jenny Yang
, former Chair, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Jane Liu, former Legal Director, National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum
Valerie Wilson, Director of Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy (PREE), Economic Policy institute

Moderated by Jeanna Smialek, reporter, New York Times

A webinar discussing three Unequal Power papers on the intersection of gender and race in workplace power.

Thursday, March 11
4 p.m.–5:30 p.m. ET / 1 p.m.–2:30 p.m. PT 

Zoom, YouTube