Race, Gender, and the EEOC-Shifting Social Contracts—or not (by Beth Rubin)

One of the fundamental social contracts that under girds American society is that between individuals and the larger society, that we are a land of opportunity, that what one does—rather than who one is—predicts how one will fare in the ongoing effort to achieve social status, security and economic and social well-being. 

Some of the most glaring breaches of that social contract are the deeply entrenched and institutionalized organizational practices that create and reproduce race and gender inequality in the workplace. The question, of course, is why and how these breaches persist –that is, how social movements, political contexts, and shifting political landscapes impact the way the social contract really works.

The authors show that EEOC influence and effectiveness was greatest when it created the most uncertainty for businesses and when there was associated pressure from social movement and workplace constituencies for change. Environmental uncertainty alone (the neo-institutional argument) was not enough to change white male privilege. Doing so required political agency, social movements and the motivated action of organizational constituents. When white women and men and women of color moved into positions of organizational power, they used those EEOC provisions to create more opportunities for people of color and for white women. So there, structural and cultural changes shifted the social contract toward greater egalitarianism.

Just as with labor law in the 1930s, legal/institutional change mobilized political and organizational actors, empowering them to pressure actors within an organizational field and create conditions for social transformation.  Yet, one of the most striking findings of the book’s analysis is that in the absence of sustained political pressure, the gains that white women and minority workers have made are and have been, easily lost. In the absence of normative or coercive pressures, they argue that there is no reason to expect status distinctions to shrink.  This finding is particularly important in the context the contemporary organizational landscape that is changing in ways that eschew many of the mechanisms that have been most useful for empowering the EEOC. The growth of small, de-bureaucratized, networked, spatially distributed businesses, that are less and less under EEOC jurisdiction, make it  harder to employ the accountability and regulation that has been so important to removing barriers for men and women of color and for white women suggesting an acceleration of resegregation.

So what does this mean for substantial structural social change? A grim conclusion is that what appears to be structural social change may not be; that is, in the absence of continual pressure, those who are in privileged positions will continue to either hold on to or reclaim them.

These data point to the importance of a continued strong voice on the part of white women and men and women of color to claim/demand a fair social contract.

-Beth Rubin

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