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Spring 2024 Winner of the Civil Rights Scholarship

Iris Chen

Iris Chen
Iris is a college senior who is going to attend Yale Law School in the upcoming fall. We believe that her determination and persistence will enable her to break down workplace barriers and pave the way for positive change. We are proud to present our award to Iris and we look forward to seeing what she will achieve.

Read Iris’ Essay:

An important civil rights issue in the workplace is the prevalence of discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, race, familial status, or other characteristics. The law protects against unfair treatment, harassment, denial of a reasonable workplace accommodation, improper questions about one’s medical condition, and retaliation for complaining about any of the aforementioned issues. However, in practice, discrimination is difficult to prove, and suits are cost and time-intensive to levy.

As a research assistant in the Hebl Lab and Gender Action Lab, I studied the magnitude of racial and gender discrimination in the workplace, the mechanisms producing those disparities, and the efficacy of different interventions for redressing them. According to a Deloitte survey, 61% of Gen Z and 49% of millennials have experienced harassment or microaggressions in the past year. The gender and race wage gaps are well-documented: Women make 83 cents for every dollar men earn, and even more alarmingly, Black women only earn 70 cents and Latinas earn 65 cents to the dollar (Pew Research Center, 2023). These gaps are only exacerbated in older age groups, as women face greater challenges in career advancement and social norms influence women to prioritize their families over their careers.

Other pervasive systemic issues contributing to the wage gap include motherhood penalties, gender discrimination and harassment, and occupational segregation, since wages and working conditions tend to be poorer in occupations where marginalized groups are overrepresented. According to a 2019 study by Kearl, Johns, & Raj, 38% of women and 14% of men have experienced sexual harassment at work.

These statistics have many troubling implications. They are clearly indicative of systemic injustice and violations of fair equality of opportunity. These underlying gender and racial dynamics undermine the meritocratic principle of promoting the best candidate. Moreover, companies without active diversity & inclusion initiatives have trouble retaining historically disadvantaged employees, forcing them to incur additional recruiting and training costs.

Without diversity, companies also miss out on the benefits resulting from the interaction of unique perspectives. For instance, a study of 600 business decisions made by 200 teams found that the decision making of diverse teams outperforms individual decision making 87% of the time. Diverse employees better understand how to make products and services more inclusive of people from marginalized communities as well. All these factors result in diminished employee morale, productivity, and corporate efficiency, illustrating a strong business case against discrimination in the workplace. This business case ought to be emphasized to employers so that they are incentivized to adopt greater responsibility in addressing discrimination. In this way, it shifts the burden for enforcement of anti-discrimination from workers to employers.

Millennials need to be better informed about their employment rights and ways to file discrimination complaints. Currently, the primary means of enforcing anti-discrimination laws is for individual workers to file complaints with their employer or a government agency. They must collect evidence, file an internal complaint, then levy a formal charge of discrimination with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a state fair employment agency before suing their employer in court. This process is time-intensive, costly, and inaccessible to most workers. Additionally, workers rarely have access to information they need to prove discrimination.

Companies ought to conduct mandatory anti-harassment training in small groups with practical examples of inappropriate behavior and next steps clearly laid out; managers should receive additional training tailored to their roles. They should send its anti-discrimination and harassment policies to employees quarterly, with the requirement that employees attest to whether they have experienced or observed inappropriate behavior. To reach more blue-collar occupations, unions ought to do the same with their workers. Furthermore, companies should create anonymous reporting platforms and reward managers who take action on harassment.

However, it is not sufficient to rely on individual companies taking proactive steps to protect their workers. Government enforcement agencies need to hold them accountable. To counteract the power imbalance between workers and employers, agencies need to extend greater resources to support worker’s rights, particularly on behalf of the most vulnerable workers, like domestic workers and migrant farmworkers. To that end, they should strengthen relationships with stakeholders, including worker organizations, community organizations, and employer associations, to identify patterns of violations and disseminate information about civil rights in the workplace. For example, they should offer outreach and education through trainings. On a policy level, they should require employers to disclose certain information about their employment practices to create greater accountability. Legal protections should be extended to independent contractors and temporary workers, and they should prohibit practices such as forced arbitration agreements, nondisclosure agreements, and no-rehire clauses that chip away at workers’ rights.

Finally, I want to acknowledge that to achieve the spirit of anti-discrimination laws, we must supplement these measures. My research in the Hebl Lab, Gender Action Lab, and Harvard Decision Science Lab, as well as my coursework related to behavioral science, helped me why formal equality is not enough to address disparities in the classroom and the workplace. For example, I learned that female lawyers tend to face the “thin-folder problem:” Their experience objectively looks weaker than that of male counterparts because they are staffed on lower-profile cases and tasked with more non-promotional and non-billable assignments.

I have tried to apply the toolset I learned for redressing discrimination and promoting not just formal, but substantive, equality to organizations I am a part of. For instance, one of my college clubs struggled with attracting and retaining diverse talent. First, I invited the Title IX office to run a training on how to identify and respond to instances of discrimination/harassment. Additionally, I worked to “decode” promotional materials so that they include a balance of male-signaling words, like “driven” and “competitive,” and female-signaling words, like “collaborative.” I recommended other choice architectures, like making promotions opt-out rather than opt-in, since women and underrepresented minorities tend to feel less confident in their promotional prospects.

Part of why I want to attend law school, however, is because I want to effect larger-scale change. In my research positions, I was several layers removed from the actual implementation of measures that prevent discrimination. I wanted to witness their impact firsthand. Hence, in the long term, whether it is through representing victims of workplace discrimination or harassment or helping to craft legislation that provides further protections to marginalized groups in the workplace, I hope to be a force of positive change in breaking down legal and institutional barriers that limit equal opportunities on the basis of gender.