Share / Discuss

Barriers to Success

This summer in a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that the section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlaws employment discrimination on the basis of sex must be interpreted to include protection of gay and transgender people. Assistant Professor of Sociology Daniel Laurison ’99 explains why this great step is only the first in a long road ahead for equity and inclusion in the workplace. 

Why is this landmark ruling so critical? 

I’ve been struggling a bit with how to answer this question, because there isn’t a lot to say beyond, “Yup, this is very good news for me as a queer and trans person, and for all LGBT people in the U.S.” It is good news, both because a lot of us were worried the Supreme Court would rule against us, and because employers shouldn’t get to fire people based on who we are. 

How would you describe the moment in a historical context?

It comes at a time of so much upheaval and distress that it’s been a bit hard to focus on this particular bit of good news. So many people are sick and dying unnecessarily because of government mishandling of the pandemic, because for too many people the only options are doing work that is now far more dangerous than it used to be, or worrying about losing their homes and health care and so on — and in the midst of all the attention that is finally being paid to the endemic white-supremacist violence in our country, and efforts to change that. 

The fact that the ruling protects transgender people alongside lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals is important and meaningful for trans people, especially trans women. It’s also good news because it reflects, as Supreme Court decisions often do, the really substantial change that has happened in public opinion on queer and (to a lesser extent) trans people over the last few decades.  

What are some crucial next steps?

We live in a deeply sexist and heteronormative society, even if it’s somewhat better than it used to be. There are still queer and trans kids getting kicked out of their homes and churches for who they are, and this ruling won’t do anything about that. There are still people actively campaigning to ensure that trans women aren’t allowed in women’s sports or women’s bathrooms, loudly proclaiming that trans people are just somehow confused. 

While the ruling may make some employers think twice before firing someone just for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or any variant on any of those, if it does happen, the ruling only helps if they are able to find a lawyer to represent them and prove that their sex, gender, or sexual orientation was the reason they were fired, and that can be very hard to do, and expensive. And it doesn’t affect discrimination outside the workplace at all.

What helps to ensure equity in the workplace?

It’s pretty easy for a savvy boss to fire someone in most states and most workplaces for any reason they want to (though unions can help with this). Losing your job puts your health coverage at risk, as well as your income. 

As long as there’s the level of inequality that there is, a particular group having protections from identity-based discrimination is great, but doesn’t do much for most people whose larger challenge is getting a job in the first place, earning enough to live and feed their family and stay housed, etc. — especially with all the turmoil in the economy with the pandemic. Being protected from being fired for who you are is great, in other words, but not that interesting if you’re instead being laid off to protect your employer’s profits.

How do we expand conversations about privilege? 

Beyond the level of inequality overall, so many of our institutions are steeped in the culture of straight, cis, well-off white masculinity. That means that those of us who aren’t in all those categories are often disadvantaged in ways much more subtle, and more pervasive, than simply being fired because of who we are. When the dominant norms and expectations feel natural to some people, and opaque to others, that creates real barriers to success. 

It is really hard to do good work if everyone at your job thinks the fact that you’re nonbinary is silly or weird, or if everyone else is white and from professional families and you’re not. This is in part what my last book, The Class Ceiling, was about — how the class cultures of elite workplaces disadvantage those from working-class backgrounds. But as a sociologist, I know that these kinds of dynamics operate in many spaces, and are about race, gender, sexuality, disability and more, not just class.