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by Brett C. Burkhardt

The US Department of Justice has announced a plan to end its use of private prisons. Last week, the Department issued orders to the Bureau of Prisons to allow extant contracts to lapse without renewal and to cease future requests for new contracts. The plan will reduce the number of federal inmates in private prisons to roughly 14,000 by 2017, down from nearly 30,000 in 2013, and eventually bring the population to near zero.

That said, the plan will actually leave the majority of private prison contracts untouched, and is also likely to mean that private prison providers will push even harder for contracts for the detention of immigrants.

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Image: keepingtime_ca via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Image: keepingtime_ca via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This past week, voters in Houston struck down Proposition 1, or HERO (the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance), which would have barred discrimination on the basis of race, age, military status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and additional categories in non-religiously based organizations and institutions.

Several things come to mind in light of the vote.

HERO was drafted by Houston Mayor Annise Parker, certainly not the first female mayor or a major city but the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city.  The bill’s opposition could be, in some way, opposition to an openly gay woman seen as “favoring her own,” a barrier many minority leaders face.  While it is rare for straight, white male leaders get accused of passing legislation that benefits other straight, white men, it turns out that women and minorities are deemed as “selfish” and disliked if they attempt to promote other minority groups.

But would HERO have passed if a straight, white man drafted it?  Maybe not because of the way HERO was framed by opponents.

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dollarIn early June, it came to light that last October, Walt Disney World Orlando eliminated the jobs of 250 data systems employees. The move made national news not because so many workers became jobless, but because Disney offered a severance bonus to employees who remained with the firm long enough to train the young immigrant workers who would assume their tasks.

The heartlessness of this move left workers and consumers reeling. A former Disney employee told a reporter for the New York Times, “It was so humiliating to train someone else to take over your job. I still can’t grasp it.” Outrage spread across news and social media, fueled by dismay that a company so closely associated with wholesome family entertainment would betray its workers in this way.

Many observers lamented loopholes in the H-1B visa program used to secure the replacement workers’ entry to the US, and endorsed reforms that would reduce impacts on American workers. Relatively few seem to grasp that Disney’s moves are rooted not in policy loopholes or corporate malfeasance, but instead are part and parcel of capitalism. Outsourcing, layoffs and swiftly severed ties – this is what capitalism looks like. As Karl Marx pointed out in his Manifesto of the Communist Party, workers, who under capitalism “must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.” The “increasing improvement” of production methods “ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious.” Manual workers confronted this reality decades ago, as plants in the United States closed and production moved overseas to take advantage of lower-cost labor. Increasingly, professional workers are also feeling the pain of displacement. And there is only more to come.

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It’s been a rough summer for academics. Just in the last few months, two black women sociologists have become the subjects of national news stories when comments they wrote on twitter drew the ire of conservatives who branded them racists and demanded that the institutions where they worked fire them. First Saida Grundy, then Zandria Robinson drew media attention when conservative websites critiqued their twitter comments on the confederate flag, white college men, and other subjects related to issues of race and inequality. In Grundy’s case, she issued a statement saying that she wished she’d chosen her words more carefully, and the furor essentially died down. In Robinson’s case, after public speculation that the university fired her, she wrote a lengthy blog post desribing the details of her long association with her former employer and ultimate decision to leave for another university.

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Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) promo photo via LinkedIn

Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) promo photo via LinkedIn

The blog This is Not a Pattern has an intriguing post entitled “Ways Men in Tech are Unintentionally Sexist.” The post draws attention to various unintended but meaningful ways that men in high technology, a notoriously male-dominated field, behave and speak in ways that normalize women’s exclusion and marginalization in this profession. This is particularly timely in the wake of Ellen Pao’s recent lawsuit for gender discrimination. The author sees several ways in which the culture of high technology subordinates women: language that perpetuates men as the default and women as outsiders; normative assumptions that tokenize women, emphasizing the (assumed or real) contrasts between them and men as the majority group; and perhaps most importantly, the tendency among workers to remain silent (and thus complicit) when sexist behaviors and gender discrimination occur.

While this article highlights important patterns that no doubt contribute to the myriad challenges women face in technology, I found this article particularly interesting because in many ways these innocuous behaviors are likely found in many male-dominated professions. Kris Paap’s ethnography of women working construction, for instance, provides extensive evidence of how men assume a gendered (male) worker in this field, and how that assumption shapes their language and interactions in ways that help maintain women’s underrepresentation in this field. Similarly, sociologists like Louise Roth and Jennifer Pierce have shown how women in finance and law, respectively, face cultural assumptions about their lack of qualifications, skill, and suitability for their professions.

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Image credit: Vitor Lima, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Image credit: Vitor Lima, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The topic of workplace surveillance made The New York Times last summer with evidence of benevolent kinds of monitoring, that is, surveillance technologies that will – by some interpretations – benefit workers and managers alike. Some of these systems monitor employees in their every movement around the firm, even on breaks. A Bank of America call center, for instance, used these monitoring techniques and found that workers who communicate more closely when off the desk, are more effective when they return. Managers implemented a 15-minute coffee break for workers to talk with each other – and voila! Call-handling productivity increased 10 percent, and employee turnover fell by 70 percent. Happy workers, happy employers, right?

I was struck that the article mentions research from my campus, Washington University, Saint Louis. Lamar Pierce, a faculty member in the Business School (along with colleagues elsewhere), analyzed data from a surveillance program adopted in casual restaurants (i.e., places like Chili’s, Applebee’s, and the Olive Garden). This program algorithmically observes the way wait staff input sales into the computer, to address potential theft (particularly, under-documenting items on the bill, so that servers can pocket more of the cash left on the table). Results of this monitoring were favorable for employers, as employee theft reduced slightly when they were monitored. In addition, and perhaps as an added bonus, sales went up (because waiters were working harder to sell more food and raise the total charges). Even more, this meant gains for workers too, as their tips increased due to the increase in sales. Another case of good times all around.

But all of this makes me wonder: might this euphoria about surveillance be missing the bigger picture of what happens with technological monitoring in the workplace?

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Image: pixabay.com

Image: pixabay.com

by Michael L. Rosino, Devon R. Goss, and Matthew W. Hughey

One only need picture the typical American corporate boss (white, male, and wealthy) in order to conjure up the history of discrimination and inequality within the business realm. Over the past few decades, business leaders have attempted to address these problems through efforts oriented at increasing diversity. For instance, in 2014, major tech companies including Google, Apple, Twitter, and Facebook released their diversity statistics in reports to the media under pressure from journalists and activists. While the reports revealed the overwhelming white masculinity of the modern corporation, the companies still framed their statistics as reflecting their commitment to diversity.

The release of these reports garnered media speculation about the causes of this lack of racial and gender diversity and the implications for the future of race and gender inequalities. Alongside news publications such as the New York Times and Washington Post, articles in business media outlets such as Forbes, Businessweek, and The Wall Street Journal also weighed in on “Silicon Valley’s Diversity Problem” as these elements of the 4th estate have long discussed diversity initiatives in the business world.

Despite the active discussion on the wide spectrum of abstract issues around diversity, business media outlets generally present business diversity in highly specific terms. Activists and scholars might argue that diversity—especially along the lines of race, gender, and sexuality in the business sphere—matters due to concerns about macroeconomic stability, ethical fairness, and/or social justice. However, articles published in business media outlets often discuss the merits of business diversity efforts solely in terms of the “business case” for diversity.

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